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UPDATE: Dec. 10, 2019: The U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate both passed a bipartisan amended bill Tuesday that would permanently restore $255 million to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and simplify the FAFSA, according to a press release sent to Education Dive from the office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chair of the Senate’s education committee. The bill now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk.

Dive Brief:

  • Called the Future Act, the bill’s passage by both chambers brings to an end months of negotiations between the House and the Senate about how to renew the funding for MSIs, which primarily supported STEM education programs.
  • Last week, the Senate proposed paying for the MSI funding through savings from streamlining the FAFSA and reducing paperwork for borrowers on income-driven repayment plans.
  • Higher education groups have been quick to applaud the compromise, which will end uncertainty for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other MSIs over whether they can count on the funding.

Dive Insight:
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), which has advocated for the passage of the Future Act, said in a press release Tuesday that the funding will help eligible MSIs “enhance their fiscal stability, improve their institutional management, and strengthen their academic programming.”

And other groups have applauded how the bill would streamline the process for applying for and paying back federal aid, including by:

  • Eliminating as many as 22 questions on the FAFSA.
  • Reducing the number of students selected for verification, a complex process in which they must ensure they provided the U.S. Department of Education with same information they gave the IRS.
  • Getting rid of some of the required paperwork for students on income-driven repayment plans.

“Millions of students across America will soon be filling out FAFSA forms ahead of the fall semester,” Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said in a statement Tuesday. “[N]ow, that process will be greatly simplified.”

There were signs the Senate’s proposals to streamline the FAFSA would have trouble clearing the House. Members of the Ways and Means Committee, whose sign-off was critical, said they were concerned they would put students’ data and privacy at risk, a committee aide told Education Dive earlier this month.

However, House and Senate leaders agreeing to “strengthen privacy protections” in the version of the bill passed Tuesday helped it through another round of review by the Senate, according to a TMCF press release.

Previously, Alexander had proposed tying the $255 million in funding to a package of eight bills that would have made several large changes to the Higher Education Act (HEA), the sweeping federal law that governs much of the federal funding for colleges and universities.

Higher ed observers have been quick to speculate about what approaches to Alexander’s goal to streamline the FAFSAmight mean for the long-overdue reauthorization of the HEA.

But Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, advised against “reading too much” into how that could impact the HEA. “I don’t think necessarily it’s a reflection that (a comprehensive HEA reauthorization) is dead, and they’re going to move toward smaller bills,” he told Education Dive earlier this month. “This pretty much stands on its own.”

By Natalie Schwartz of Education Dive