Congress recently adjourned for its August recess, and members will be in their home districts until they reconvene September 10, with just a few legislative days remaining until it adjourns again for the elections. Congress is not expected to reach any conclusions on the major fiscal issues—expiring Bush tax cuts, the debt ceiling, and sequestration—until a lame duck session following the November elections at the earliest. Just before leaving for recess, congressional leaders agreed in principle to a 6-month continuing resolution (CR) that will keep government agencies funded for the first 6 months of federal FY 2013, which begins October 1. The CR sets total federal discretionary spending at the $1.047 trillion spending cap established in the Budget Control Act. Congress must finalize details of the CR and enact it when it returns in September to avert the threat of a government shutdown and take a significant issue off the table for the lame duck session.
While congressional members are home for their recess, I ask that you take the opportunity to meet with them to advocate on behalf of your institution and community colleges in general. In addition to the three more immediate issues detailed below, it is important that Congress continues to hear about the importance of the Pell Grant program to your institution. On the plus side, the maximum award is slated for an increase to $5,635 in the next award year, but many community college leaders also lament the loss of the year-round Pell Grant as the first full summer without it ends. Legislators should be made aware of how that complicates your efforts to graduate more students. In terms of specific issues that are on the table, please emphasize the following three messages:
1. Restore Title IV Eligibility for Ability-to-Benefit (ATB) Students in Career Pathway Programs. Earlier this summer, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY 2013 Labor, HHS and Education (LHHS) appropriations bill with a provision that restores Title IV eligibility for students who do not possess a high school diploma or GED but that nonetheless show the ability to benefit from college-level course work, as long as they are enrolled in career pathway programs as defined in the bill. While this is not a full restoration of the Title IV ATB eligibility that was lost in the FY 2012 appropriations process, it is a significant step in the right direction and one focused on a growing category of community college programs. The corresponding House legislation does not contain this provision. Therefore, community colleges must urge their members of Congress to support the inclusion of the Senate ATB restoration in the final appropriations legislation.
2. Preserve Full Pell Grant Eligibility for Online Community College Students. The Senate LHHS bill also contains a provision that would not allow living expenses to be counted when determining Pell Grant eligibility for students enrolled entirely in online courses. The impetus for this provision, which would almost entirely affect community college students, was a U.S. Department of Education Inspector General’s report on fraud in the Pell Grant program. As important as combating Pell Grant fraud is, this provision is far too blunt an instrument that will negatively affect a great number of innocent students. Please urge your legislators to oppose inclusion of this provision in final legislation.
Note: While congressional leaders hope to keep the CR free from policy provisions like these two, it is important to make the case for these changes. Both issues will be addressed at some point in the coming months, and now is a good time to ensure that your legislators are aware of them.
3. Extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit. Prior to adjourning for the August recess, the Senate Finance Committee approved a bill that extends several tax provisions set to expire at the end of the year. That legislation did not contain an extension of one of AACC’s top priorities, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC). The AOTC, originally enacted as part of the stimulus bill and subsequently extended through 2012, replaced the Hope Scholarship tax credit with a more generous credit that better serves community college students. The AOTC is larger than Hope ($2,500 vs. $1,800) and is calculated using a formula that better benefits students in low-tuition institutions—for example, the AOTC formula allows for counting books and course materials in addition to tuition. The AOTC is also partially refundable, so low-income students with little or no tax liability can benefit from the credit. Given these generous features, extending the AOTC comes at a high price and thus faces an uphill battle. However, all evidence indicates that it is saving community college students millions of dollars each year, and thus Congress must be urged to extend this credit.
Thank you in advance for making your voices heard. If you have any questions or need further information, please contact David Baime, Senior Vice President of Government Relations; Jim Hermes, Director of Government Relations; or Laurie Quarles, Legislative Associate.
Walter G. Bumphus
President and CEO