President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a bipartisan bill that will permanently provide more than $250 million a year to the nation's historically black colleges and universities, along with dozens of other institutions that serve large shares of minority students.
In signing the bill, Trump said historically black schools have “never had better champions in the White House."
“When I took office, I promised to fight for HBCUs, and my administration continues to deliver,” Trump said. "A few months ago, funding for HBCUs was in jeopardy. But the White House and Congress came together and reached a historic agreement.”
Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, thanked Trump and the thousands of advocates who lobbied Congress to support the bill.
“We enlisted more than 20,000 supporters to write and call their members of Congress,” Lomax said. “This activated army of advocates became the frontline of support for HBCUs, and they won the battle for our institutions.”
The bill restores $255 million in annual funding that lapsed Sept. 30 after Congress failed to renew it. Facing an end to the funding, some schools had started planning for deep cuts, with some telling staff their jobs or programs would be eliminated.
But lawmakers in the Senate recently reached a bipartisan deal that saved the funding. Their compromise added an amendment that will simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the form that college students fill out to determine their eligibility for financial aid.
The legislation will allow the Education Department to gather certain information directly from the IRS, which will eliminate up to 22 of the 108 questions on the form. It's also meant to curb a verification process some families face to make sure they provided the same information to the IRS and to the Education Department.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate's education committee, called the legislation a “Christmas present for college students and their families.”
“This bipartisan provision stops families from having to give their same tax information to the federal government twice — first to the IRS, then again to the U.S. Department of Education,” Alexander said. "It should eliminate most of the so-called ‘verification’ process, which is a bureaucratic nightmare that 5.5 million students go through annually."
The legislation, known as the Future Act, also drew praise from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who called it a “historic bill" that reflects the administration's commitment to students.
The FAFSA simplifications are estimated to save $2.8 billion over a decade, which will be used to provide the $255 million a year to minority institutions.
The bill authorizes $85 million a year for historically black colleges and universities, along with $100 million for Hispanic-serving institutions, $30 million for tribal schools and $40 million for a variety of other minority-serving institutions.
The money is primarily meant to expand programs in science, technology, engineering and math.
Although there was little debate about the funding's importance, it become tangled in a dispute over the Higher Education Act, a sweeping federal law that governs colleges and universities. As Congress tries to update the law for the first time in more than a decade, it has become a battleground over major education issues dividing both parties.
Alexander has made it his mission to to reauthorize the law before he leaves the Senate after 2020, even if the update covers a relatively narrow range of issues that both sides support. Democrats, meanwhile, have fought for a more comprehensive overhaul.
After the House approved an extension of the minority institution funding in September, Alexander blocked the proposal in the Senate and moved it to a package of bills tied to the Higher Education Act. Democrats rejected his proposal, throwing the funding into jeopardy.
Both sides agreed to compromise by adding the FAFSA simplification, which Alexander has been seeking for years. The House and Senate both voted to approve final changes to the bill Dec. 10. It was applauded as a rare instance of cooperation in a Congress that has remained deeply divided over many issues.