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ACE president’s weekly email newsletter to higher education leaders

CURRENT EDITION November 16, 2018 ~ Vol. 19, No. 31

Congress returned to Washington this week to a changed political landscape in the wake of the midterm elections, with incumbent lawmakers gathering for one final session before House Democrats take power in January. Eight years of Republican control in that chamber will soon come to an end, creating a new political dynamic that may well have a significant impact on higher education. I have a brief overview of what is expected from the lame-duck Congress as well as what to watch for in the 116th Congress, along with news about the upcoming rewrite of the Title IX sexual assault rule and delays in processing housing and tuition benefits for student veterans. 

  •  Spending Bill Main Priority for Lame-Duck Session; House Democrats Prepare to Take Control

    ​With just five working weeks left before the end of the year, we are facing the threat of a partial government shutdown—not all agencies would close—as Republicans try to deliver on funding for President Trump's border wall as part of a final spending package for FY 2019. All sides must agree to a federal funding bill by Dec. 7, when a temporary spending measure ends. As it was last year at this time, immigration may be a lynchpin for securing an agreement.

    The president spent weeks ahead of the midterm election stoking fears over a migrant caravan heading toward the border and promising voters that Republicans would bring tougher border security. House Republicans have already approved $5 billion for Trump's wall, down from earlier proposals of $23 billion. But in the Senate, where Republicans need Democratic support to prevent a filibuster, a bipartisan bill allocates $1.6 billion.

    Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA): Of course, our main concern in this fight continues to be the fate of the Obama-era DACA policy, which shields some 700,000 young undocumented immigrants—many of them college students—from deportation.

    The day before the election, the Trump administration took the unusual step of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to bypass lower courts and directly review lawsuits challenging the president’s 2017 repeal of DACA. Just a few days later, a panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling blocking the Trump administration from ending DACA. That ruling means a nationwide injunction allowing DACA to continue will remain in effect—a welcome development but not enough, as I said in a statement and an op-ed in The Washington Post last week. At the end of the day, Congress and the president must work together to forge a permanent legislative solution on this issue, which is what we will be pushing for in the coming weeks.

    116th Congress convenes in January: Looking ahead to the new Congress, we will be watching closely how the House Committee on Education and the Workforce takes shape. As Inside Higher Ed pointed out, committee Democrats have frequently complained about being shut out of Republican legislative efforts and not being heard by the Education Department. One of their priorities as the new majority party is likely to be holding the Trump administration accountable for what they view as a disastrous attempt to rewrite or kill regulations aimed at higher education. Among these attempts: an overhaul of the borrower defense rule (which allows defrauded students to seek loan forgiveness) and a repeal of the gainful employment rule (which holds higher education programs accountable for graduating students with debt they can’t repay); how the department has handled Public Service Loan Forgiveness claims; and changes to Title IX sexual assault (see below for more on that effort).

    Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization: The main legislative effort on the higher education front is reauthorization of the HEA, which has been running on temporary extensions since it expired in 2015. Last December, the House Education and the Workforce Committee approved the PROSPER Act, the Republican’s proposed HEA reauthorization bill, but it was controversial and not voted on by the full House because it lacked the votes to pass. We had a number of problems with that bill, but it is now dead. House Democrats introduced their version of HEA legislation in July, which we believe is a better start to the process and is likely to reappear as the starting point for a new bill. However, the Democratic bill is very expensive and heavy on regulation. In any event, without a bipartisan agreement with the Republican Senate, any progress on HEA is unlikely.

  •  Title IX Sexual Assault Draft Rule Expected Soon

    ​The Department of Education’s (ED) new proposed rule on Title IX sexual assault is expected as early as today.

    As you may remember, ED has held meetings over the last year to gather input on this issue from a wide array of groups and stakeholders, from institutions to survivors to the accused. We have stressed that colleges and universities have a clear, unambiguous responsibility under Title IX to investigate and remedy allegations of sexual misconduct, including sexual violence. And, independent of their compliance obligations, colleges and universities want to do the right thing. We are all committed to civil rights and to creating and maintaining safe, supportive, and responsive environments on campus so that all students can benefit from the full range of educational opportunities offered.

    I will have more details on the department’s proposal when it is announced, along with information you might find helpful in crafting your own comments on the rule if you choose to respond. We also will work to compile a higher education community letter.​

  •  VA Continues Work to Mitigate Delays on Processing GI Bill Claims

    ​Along with 11 other higher education groups, we sent a letter Wednesday to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs regarding the delays veterans are experiencing receiving their housing allowance and tuition benefits. These delays are largely a result of difficulties the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has experienced attempting to update its IT system to reflect changes to the law under the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, known as the Forever GI Bill.

    Ever since the bill’s passage in the summer of 2017, the VA has been working to modify its IT systems to account for changes in the law, including changes to the way veterans’ housing benefits would be calculated. These changes were scheduled to take effect Aug. 1 of this year, but VA missed this deadline and has continued to struggle with updating their systems.

    These attempted IT upgrades have led to a series of system problems and outages, resulting in a significant claims backlog of both housing benefits, which are sent directly to veterans, and tuition payments, which are sent to institutions. The failure to make IT updates has also resulted in problems in the accuracy of the payments—for example, the housing payments that have been processed reflect 2017 rates, and not the 2018 cost of living adjustments. VA has promised to correct these payments once its system changes are made.

    In September, the outstanding claims peaked at nearly 250,000. Today, the total number of outstanding claims is closer to 80,000, so progress has been made. However, according to news reports and reports from veteran service organizations, many veterans are experiencing hardships due to these delays.

    In our letter, we make several recommendations to fix this problem, including asking Congress to require VA to adopt a simpler approach to calculating the housing benefits and to require VA to post all communications related to benefit processing in an easy-to-find location on the GI bill website.

    The House VA committee held a hearing on the administrative problems at the VA late yesterday afternoon. More details on the outcome of that panel next week.

  •  IN BRIEF: NSF Grants; ACE Regional Summits; Open Doors Report

    ​The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released new terms and conditions for NSF grants regarding reporting requirements on sexual harassment, other forms of harassment, and sexual assault impacting NSF grants and cooperative agreements. Under these reporting requirements, institutions that receive an NSF grant must report findings or determinations of sexual harassment or sexual assault, or an administrative action taken against an NSF-funded primary investigator (PI) or co-PIs. Terms and conditions of grants also make it clear that NSF may take unilateral action to protect the safety of all awardee personnel, including requiring the removal or substitution of the PI. Click here to read the NSF’s FAQ document on the new requirements.

    Thank you to those who joined me at the inaugural ACE Regional Summit in Atlanta October 11-12. It was an opportunity for those gathered—which included presidents and c-suite executives—to take a deep look at freedom of expression and inclusion at colleges and universities. If you did not attend, please consider either of our next two summits, both on the topic of student mental health: the ACE West Winter Summit, Jan. 17-18 in Tucson, Arizona, or the ACE South Winter Summit, Feb, 7-8 in New Orleans. Peer-group breakout sessions will allow for more intimate conversations with your fellow presidents as you all work to address this urgent issue. I hope to see you there.

    Finally this week, I wanted to be sure you have seen IIE’s 2018 Open Doors report, which the organization released Monday. Among the more disappointing findings, the number of new international students enrolling for the first time in fall 2018 was down for the third year in a row after historic increases. Although the rate of decline slowed from 2017, we are concerned that the current climate on immigration continues to fuel a perception that this country is no longer a welcoming place for study and research for the world’s most talented students and scholars. Click here to watch Tuesday’s press briefing on the report, and here​ to read my statement on it.

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