January Policy Roundup: Dreamers, Shutdowns and Student Aid Cards

January 25, 2018

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy, and Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate

January has been an eventful month, and the rest of the year promises to be equally so. Senate Democrats briefly shut down the federal government because Congress has yet to address Dreamers or the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but later agreed to continue negotiations on a federal funding deal regardless. The U.S. Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) provided more details on its financial aid prepaid card, which officials hope to pilot next year. The response from the field on this expansion of FSA’s role is mixed. And on the state front, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities released its annual “Top 10 Higher Education State Policy Issues for 2018.” 

No Solution for Dreamers Yet

With funding for the federal government expiring on Jan. 19, Senate Democrats shut down the government over the weekend and into Monday because there was not yet an agreement on how to address the impending end of the DACA program. Congress struck a deal to re-open the government through Feb. 8 based on a promise from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to Democrats that the Senate would vote on an immigration bill by mid-February. On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the White House would release its priorities for any immigration deal next week. NCAN encourages members to continue their outreach supporting a solution for Dreamer students. Stay tuned for more on that front as February arrives.

Federal Funding Update

Until this point, the status of Dreamers and the federal funding for fiscal year 2018, which started back in October, have been intertwined. However, Senate Democrats have now dropped their requirement that a solution for DACA recipients be included in any funding bill and are willing to enter these negotiations separately. Still left on the table are several issues related to funding levels, including defense hawks' focus on defense spending and Democrats' focus on funding for domestic priorities like education. Congress must agree to increase funding or all programs will face mandatory cuts as a result of sequestration.

The spending deals being discussed include large increases over the next two years both for defense and non-defense issues. Bipartisan support will likely be needed to pass this proposal in both chambers, as Republicans concerned with government spending levels may refuse to support a GOP bill that increases funding. This gives more leverage to House Democrats, many of whom are still insisting that a Dreamer deal be part of the negotiations even if their Senate counterparts do not. Congress has until Feb. 8 to reach a new funding agreement.

Prepaid Student Aid Card

In December at the FSA Conference, Chief Operating Officer A. Wayne Johnson announced his intention to make FSA a more consumer-focused agency, including launching a mobile app for FAFSA completion and previewing the idea of a prepaid student aid card. Rather than receiving a check or direct deposit into a more typical banking product, students could use this card to spend their financial aid reimbursements.

We now have more information about how this rollout will look. FSA is soliciting proposals from vendors to manage the card and also from institutions to serve as pilot sites for the card. The pilot sites will include up to four campuses with up to 25,000 students each. NCAN will monitor these pilots sites and the card design closely. Several advocates have raised questions, such as whether these cards will limit where students can use the funds, whether students will be offered other financial products or have their information sold, and what tone the communications from FSA to students about how they spend their money will take. 

Top 10 Issues for State Higher Education Policy

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) delivered a policy brief that highlights the top 10 issues in higher education state policy for 2018. According to AASCU, the top issue set to influence state higher education policy in 2018 is, as it happens, federal policy. The brief outlines the potential state policy impact of the new tax code and entitlement reform, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Higher Education Act reauthorization. AASCU's top 10 issues in 2018 higher education state policy are:

  1. Changes in Federal Law
  2. Sluggish State Revenue Growth
  3. College Affordability
  4. Economic and Workforce Development
  5. Undocumented and DACA Students
  6. Guns on Campus
  7. State Responses to Population Shifts
  8. Performance-Based Funding and College Completion
  9. Campus Free Speech
  10. Combatting Campus Sexual Assault

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