STEM Education and America Competes Act
In 2014, Congress began the process of reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act; originally enacted in 2007, the act is designed to enhance the science, technology, and innovation enterprise that underpins U.S. economic growth.
U.S. House of Representatives: In May 2015, the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved H.R. 1806 (the America COMPETES Act). The bill followed actions that the committee took in 2014 and 2015 on authorization bills setting funding limits and policies for the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. There was considerable controversy surrounding provisions of these earlier bills, most notably regarding NSF's grant-making process. None of those bills ever advanced to the House floor.
While H.R. 1806 reflected revisions to earlier attempts, concerns remain strong among members of the scientific community. A major criticism of H.R. 1806 is how it sets authorization levels for NSF doctorates within the research and related activities account. This is contrary to previous authorizations, which included a single number for the account. The bill's treatment of directorates varies, which some receiving increases while others—such as geosciences and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorates—have their authorized funding levels significantly reduced. The bill's provisions regarding the merit review system, facility management, and scientific misconduct have also been criticized. In the Department of Energy portion of the bill, authorized funding for the Office of Science's Biological and Environmental Research Program was reduced, as was funding for ARPA-E and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
In addition to passing H.R. 1806, the House also approved H.R. 880, the research and development tax credit. In addition, amendments included increased budget authority for the Manufacturing Extension by $5 million taken from the Department of Energy's Efficiency and Renewable Energy section; the creation of a training program for robotics; STEM competitions for teachers; support for female entrepreneurs in I-Corps; and the establishment of a Hispanic grant program.
U.S. Senate: In May 2015, a bipartisan group of seven senators introduced S. 1398, legislation to reauthorize the energy programs in the America COMPETES Act. The bill, under consideration by the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, would authorize an annual 4 percent increase in funding for basic energy research and reauthorize the Department of Energy's Office of Science and ARPA-E for five years.
Editor's Note: In August 2015, NACE provided comments regarding the reauthorization of the act to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
Higher Education Act Reauthorization
U.S. House: The house Higher Education Subcommittee held a hearing focused on improving college access for low-income and first-generation college students. The subcommittee plans to use the following bills as a starting point for their reauthorization bill:
H.R. 3136: Advancing Competency-Based Education Demonstration Project Act of 2014, which reserves $1 million in funding for the U.S. Department of Education to authorize the Secretary to select up to 20 eligible entities to participate in demonstration projected related to competency-based education.
H.R. 4984: Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act, which changes the requirements for the counseling of students who participate in federal student aid programs, such as federal student loans and Pell grants.
H.R. 4983: Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, which replaces the current College Navigator website with a new website and change the type of information that the website would provide. The bill also amends the requirements of the department's net-price calculator, which provides details on the costs of postsecondary education.
H.R. 970: Supporting Academic Freedom Through Regulatory Relief Act, which repeals the definition of a credit hour, state authorization, gainful employment, college ratings, and teacher preparation regulations. The bill explicitly prohibits the Department from regulating on college ratings and credit hour. NACE leadership, after meeting with Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), subcommittee chair, wrote a letter in support of the bill.
The House aims to introduce a series of theme bills in the June/July 2015 timeframe. However, the timeline is fluid as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (EDEA) is the lead priority for the committee. Some of the areas that will be addressed include Title IV, Student Financial Aid; accreditation; innovation; regulatory relief.
U.S. Senate: The Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) held hearings on a variety of issues, including the recommendation from the Regulations Task Force report, the role of consumer information in college choice, and institutional risk-sharing on student loans. Bills expected to be including in the Senate reauthorization are:
S. 108: Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act of 2015, which eliminates the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) in its current form by reducing it to a postcard that asks family size and household income. The bill also tells families early in the process what the federal government will provide to them in a grant or loan by using earlier tax data and creating a look-up table to allow students in their junior year of high school to see their federal aid eligibility; streamlines the federal grant and loan programs by combining two federal grant programs into one Pell grant program and reducing the six different federal loan programs into three; restores year-round Pell grant availability; discourages over-borrowing by limiting the amount a student can borrow based on enrollment status (part-time versus full-time enrollment); simplifies repayment options by creating two plans—an income-based plan and a 10-year repayment plan.
S. 85: Repay Act, which consolidates many of the benefits of the current repayment programs into a single, simplified income-based repayment option, enabling borrowers to have the choice of either a 10-year fixed repayment plan or a single, income-driven plan.
Earlier in 2015, HELP Chairman Alexander put forth three white papers, which addressed accreditation reform, institutional accountability through risk-sharing, and postsecondary data transparency and consumer information, and requested input from stakeholders in the higher education community. NACE provided comments on the data transparency and consumer information.
In May 2015, Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray announced several bipartisan, full committee staff working groups to address four majors issues related to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act: accountability, accreditation, college affordability and financial aid, campus sexual assault and safety.
Higher Education Policy Issues
Federal Student Unit Record System and S. 1195 (Student Right to Know Before You Go Act): Introduced in May 2015, the bill would permit a federal student unit record system and is similar to a bill introduced in the previous Congress. Using information that is already gathered, student records would be matched with employment and earnings data. The legislation directs the Secretary of Education to make the information available online in an easily accessible format.
Regulations Task Force: The Senate-appointed Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education released its final report in February 2015. The report outlines ways Congress and the Department of Education can streamline and reduce federal regulations of colleges and universities. Senate HELP Chair Alexander has indicated that he plans to include many of the recommendations in the Senate reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Making College More Affordable: Members of Congress and presidential candidates are introducing a variety of proposals to make college more affordable, including free community college and debt-free college graduates.
In November 2014, President Obama issued a series of Executive Orders related to immigration. Three critical elements of the President's executive actions are:
Cracking down on illegal immigration at the border: The President's actions increase the chances that anyone attempting to cross the border illegally will be caught and sent back.
Deporting felons, not families: The President's actions focus on the deportation of people who threaten national security and public safety. He has directed immigration enforcement to place anyone suspected of terrorism, violent criminals, gang members, and recent border crossers at the top of the deportation priority list.
Accountability—criminal background checks and taxes: The President has acted to hold accountable those undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than five years and are parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. By registering and passing criminal and national security background checks, millions of undocumented immigrants will start paying taxes and temporarily stay in the United States without fear of deportation for three years at a time.
Immigration and the Military
Under current law, lawful permanent residents (LPRs) are eligible to volunteer to serve in the U.S. military. If they pass the strict qualification requirements applicable to those who seek to serve, they can serve in the U.S. armed forces and, once they are in the armed forces, they may apply for expedited consideration for U.S. citizenship, which is granted on a routine basis.
Some in Congress are considering how to use military service to provide an opportunity for citizenship for unlawful immigrants who are brought to the United States as minors (known as "DREAMers"—Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors). Two bills—Military Enlistment Opportunity Act (H.R. 435) and ENLIST Act (H.R. 2377) would allow DREAMers to acquire legal permanent residence in exchange for military service. Then, under existing law, DREAMers would be given LPR status and could apply for citizenship on an expedited basis.