“Show me the money”: Proposed federal investments in postsecondary education

During the 2020 presidential campaign, then candidate Joe Biden released a sweeping higher education platform that, in addition to free community college, included calls for increased federal investment in minority serving institutions (MSIs), doubling the Pell grant, and increasing workforce education and apprenticeship programs. Although direct institutional and student aid were included in the most recent COVID aid bill, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, the higher education community has been awaiting further information on more comprehensive, non-COVID specific postsecondary education budget plans. Two recent proposals—the $2 trillion infrastructure proposal and the president’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget—lay out the broad strokes of President Biden’s higher education policy priorities.

A Crash Course in the Federal Budget Process

Before we look at these two recent proposals to understand what they might mean for higher education in general and digital learning in particular, a quick primer on the federal budget process is in order.

Federal spending can be categorized as either entitlement spending or discretionary spending. Entitlements are those programs that are required by law such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Pell to name just a few. Discretionary spending is federal spending for programs that are not required by law such as some workforce education programs or research programs. This difference between entitlement and discretionary spending is important because it impacts which type of spending can be passed through reconciliation.

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Budget bills, unlike other legislation, can be passed in the Senate through a process known as reconciliation which, because it is not subject to the filibuster, only requires a simple majority to pass. Most bills in the Senate require 60 votes in order to break cloture and make them “filibuster proof.” In an evenly divided Senate such as the one we have right now, this means that all Democrats and at least ten Republicans have to agree to a piece of legislation before it can even make it to the floor for a vote—an almost impossible task. Reconciliation, however, allows a bill to be passed with a simple majority and limits debate on the bill to 20 hours.

There are limits to the use of reconciliation, however. It can only be used for entitlement spending and can only be used for legislation that changes spending levels or the federal debt. In addition to these limitations, the reconciliation process is also limited by the Byrd Amendment, named after West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. The Byrd Amendment further restricts reconciliation by preventing it from being used to impact Social Security spending and disallowing it to include any “extraneous” measures that do not directly and purposefully implement budget changes. Additionally, programmatic changes must result in a budgetary impact that is “more than incidental.” In other words, the purpose of the proposed changes must be to primarily impact the budget or the federal debt.

There is one other important piece of the current configuration that is likely to impact the reconciliation process—moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. In order for Democrats to pass anything through the reconciliation process they have to muster all 50 Democratic votes (or face the even tougher prospect of getting a Republican to cross the aisle and vote with them), including Senator Manchin, a fiscal conservative. This makes certain types of federal aid and the possibility of a tax increase highly unlikely.

Why is all of this important for higher education? It directly impacts the type and extent of economic legislation that is likely to pass the Senate and show up on President Biden’s desk for his signature.

The American Jobs Plan

Late last month, the Biden administration released the American Jobs Plan, its $2 trillion wide-ranging infrastructure proposal. Although much of this proposed legislation focuses on the repair of infrastructure such as highways, bridges, ports, airports, and transit systems and investments in delivering clean drinking water and a renewed electric grid, it also includes substantial investments in broadband access, community colleges, and workforce development programs.

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Proclaiming that “Broadband internet is the new electricity,” the President’s proposal goes on to observe that more than 30 million Americans live in areas with highly limited high speed broadband that creates a “stark digital divide.” The president’s proposed solution? A $100 billion plan that would:

  • Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage.
  • Promote transparency and competition among internet providers.
  • Reduce the cost of broadband in order to promote widespread adoption.

In addition to this unprecedented investment in digital infrastructure, the plan also proposes several other actions that would impact higher education including:

  • $12 billion investment in infrastructure improvement at community colleges.
  • $88 billion in workforce development including $40 billion for a dislocated workers program and considerable funds for apprenticeship programs. Although not limited to community colleges, many of the impacted workforce development programs are housed at community and technical colleges.
  • $40 billion in research with $20 billion earmarked for the development and improvement of research facilities at MSIs.
  • An additional $25 billion in research and development including funds for the development of research incubators at MSIs.

Obviously, if passed, this legislation could have a substantial impact on higher education, especially minority serving institutions and community colleges. However, and this is a big however, it won’t pass as written. Even though Senate leadership has indicated that they plan on using the reconciliation process to try to pass the American Jobs Plan, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has declared that the proposed plan, especially with its increase to corporate income taxes, is essentially dead on arrival. According to Manchin, “As the bill exists today, it needs to be changed.” And without Manchin on board, Democrats are one vote short of the simple majority that they would need to pass another reconciliation measure.

The FY 2022 Proposed Discretionary Budget

In addition to the proposed American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration also recently released the outline of its proposed FY 2022 budget on April 8th, including over $40 billion in additional higher education support which is presented as an attempt to “drive towards equity in higher education.”

Divided into five broad categories (investing in public health, creating an economy that works for all, tackling the climate crisis, advancing equity, and restoring America’s global standing and confronting 21st century security challenges), the resulting $769 billion non-defense discretionary funding request would be a 16 percent increase over the FY 2021 enacted budget. In the Congressional transmittal letter, Acting Budget Director Shalanda D. Young describes the proposed budget as:

The discretionary request proposes investments to help deliver on America’s shared commitment to advancing equity across the Nation—creating an inclusive economy, expanding housing and reducing the racial wealth gap, committing to criminal justice reform, redressing longstanding injustice, and upholding the trust responsibility to tribal nations.

Perhaps most striking is the proposed $102.8 billion for the Department of Education which represents a 41 percent increase over the 2021 enacted budget.

Given the higher education proposal advanced during the campaign, there is little in the way of surprises for higher education in the proposed FY 2022 budget. Among the higher education items in the proposed budget:

  • Increase of the maximum Pell grant by $400 to $6,895 maximum award. This would be the single largest increase to the Pell program since 2009 and would result in an additional $3 billion. Also of note, the proposed budget would expand Pell eligibility to DACA students.
  • An additional $600 million to minority serving institutions and “low-resourced” institutions to improvement enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. This would include community colleges.
  • $258 million (representing an additional $100 million) in funding for the Department of Labor to expand the Registered Apprenticeship program
  • $3.7 billion (representing an additional $203 million) in funding for the Department of Labor to expand Workforce Investment Opportunity Act funded workforce development programs. Many of these programs are at community colleges.
  • An additional $20 million to the Office of STEM Engagement to increase minority recruitment for STEM careers and postsecondary degrees that would be administered in cooperation with minority serving institutions and other higher education institutions.

It’s important to note, however, that the likelihood of this budget as proposed being passed is non-existent since it does not have bipartisan support and, unlike the entitlement spending that makes up the American Jobs Plan, the discretionary spending of the proposed budget means that it cannot be passed via reconciliation. As a result, Democrats would need 60 votes, including ten Republican votes, to advance the proposed budget in the Senate. Nevertheless, it does provide instructive insight into the likely postsecondary education priorities of the Biden administration.

What All of This Means for Digital Learning

Although they don’t directly call out digital learning, both the American Jobs Plan and President Biden’s proposed budget could have a significant impact on digital learning and postsecondary education.

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The recent pandemic has made visible the chasm that represents America’s digital divide. The proposed $100 billion in broadband aid would be transformational in much the same way as the investment in rural electricity transformed large swaths of America during the Great Depression. In essence, the American Jobs Plan is suggesting that broadband internet should be treated like electricity or any other utility—something that is necessary and not a luxury. For rural institutions, especially tribal colleges that are located in internet deserts, easy student access to broadband can significantly increase student access as well as transform pedagogical practices to leverage digital learning best practices.

The proposed budget would also have a tremendous impact on postsecondary education and digital learning. With its funds for infrastructure improvement, including IT infrastructure, at minority serving and low-resourced institutions, the proposed budget would address the institutional technology divide between well-funded institutions with developed digital learning capacity and those institutions that are still struggling to embrace digital learning and leverage the opportunities that it provides. Additionally, the increased investment in apprenticeship and workforce development programs would pump money into institutions, especially community colleges, that are committed to serving as key parts of the school to career pipeline. Furthermore, based on the ways in which workforce development dollars were distributed during the Obama administration through the TAACCCT (Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training) grants, there is ample reason to believe that there would be an expectation that at least a portion of any workforce development education would involve digital learning. As a result, digital learning at community and technical colleges could stand to make enormous gains.

It’s unlikely that either the American Jobs Plan or the proposed FY 2022 budget will be passed in their present form. However, there is bipartisan support for at least some broadband assistance, particular to rural areas and bipartisan support for workforce development so it is highly likely that at least some portion of each plan will be enacted. Postsecondary education, and particularly digital learning, stands to benefit from the final passage of both proposals. In the meantime, we just have to wait until Congress can show us the money.


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Van Davis
Policy and Planning Consultant, WCET
Principal, Foghlam Consulting


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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