2020 has been quite a year. Today’s students were faced with challenges like never before when campus closed due to the pandemic in March, and for many, things haven’t gotten easier. At Higher Learning Advocates, we quickly shifted focus to help ensure students’ immediate needs were met during this crisis, while still keeping long-term change in mind.
But in a year marked by unexpected challenges, hardships, and loss, we are happy to say that we’ve also had some real wins on behalf of students.
Changing Policy for Today’s Students
We achieved significant policy change for today’s students, including new laws and regulations related to COVID-19. They included:
Emergency aid and CCDBG funding through the CARES Act. The legislation also paused Pell Lifetime Eligibility usage limits and Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements.
A waiver on substantive change rules, allowing accreditors and institutions to work to more swiftly move to distance education.
A new notification to guide students whose finances have changed when completing the FAFSA and a lower FAFSA income verification threshold.
The addition of broadband access questions to the NPSAS BPS survey.
In addition, we worked directly with lawmakers in Congress to advance solutions for today’s students. As a result, 15 of our policy recommendations have been introduced as legislation this year. You can see many of them in Higher Learning Advocates’ Playbook for Today’s Students. Most notably:
In April 2019, Higher Learning Advocates began advocating for addressing food insecurity for college students by asking policymakers to create a new notification for students whose Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is zero to be made aware of SNAP benefits when they complete the FAFSA. Higher Learning Advocates worked with Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-CT)on the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act (S. 2110, H.R. 3718).
Higher Learning Advocates proposed a unique policy recommendation in response to students struggling with child care needs whenever an emergency or disruption in care meant they might miss attending one of their classes. We worked with Rep. Johnson’s office to introduce the Empower Parents in College Act (H.R. 4253), which would allow institutions to use SIP or SEOG funds to form relationships with local child care providers.
In March 2020, as higher education almost universally went online, Higher Learning Advocates identified today’s students’ need to access high-quality broadband and technology to complete coursework. We worked with Rep. Eshoo and Sen. Klobuchar to introduce the Supporting Connectivity for Higher Education Students in Need Act, which would expand access to reliable and affordable broadband and connected devices for today’s students. We also worked with Senator Wyden (D-OR) in introducing the Emergency Broadband Connections Act (S.4095), which would create an emergency benefit for broadband service to provide free or low-cost broadband service to households with Pell-eligible students.
In August 2020, Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) introduced the Emergency Grant Aid for College Students Act (S. 4465), which would create an infrastructure for institutions to grant direct aid to students, as in HLA’s recommendation to provide such aid to students facing unexpected financial hardships, like sudden loss of wages, medical expenses, and other emergencies.
Higher Learning Advocates worked with Senator Booker (D-NJ) to introduce the Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) Reset and Reform Act (S. 5033), which would expand flexibility for today’s students by creating a SAP reset for those who have failed SAP in the past but have not been enrolled for the previous two years, a recommendation first included in HLA’s Toolkit for Today’s Students, published last year.
Elevating Students’ Voices
Today’s students are at the center of our work, so throughout the year, we worked to highlight their voices. In April, our Insights & Outlook issue featured stories about how the pandemic changed spring semester from eleven students across the country. HLA organized a social media campaign, #MyCollegeIs, focused on sharing students’ stories about what college really looked like for them this fall. Along with our partners in the Today’s Students Coalition, we hosted a webinar town hall, moderated by NPR’s Elissa Nadworny, that featured five student panelists who spoke to how the pandemic had changed their higher education journeys.
Connecting College Students
As the pandemic forced colleges and universities to quickly shift online, affordable and reliable access to broadband became even more essential in higher ed. HLA endorsed relevant legislation, commissioned a survey that highlighted students’ difficulties learning online, spoke with students themselves about their struggles, and penned op-eds urging policymakers to act to ensure broadband access. Many students across the country are still struggling to connect today, but we are hopeful that lawmakers will act before the year ends to put students’ needs first.
Supporting Student Parents
Student parents have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. While they have received some support, long term change is needed, such as changes to the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) and the Child Care Access Means Parents in Schools (CCAMPIS) program. In addition to releasing our own policy publication focused on student caregivers, we also elevated the voices of experts through Insights & Outlooks.
Advocating for Emergency Aid
Before the pandemic began, Higher Learning Advocates advocated for more accessible emergency aid, like microgrants, for today’s students. But access to emergency aid became even more critical once the pandemic began. Though some emergency aid was distributed via the CARES Act, more is needed. HLA supported legislation that would make additional aid available and, together with the Today’s Students Coalition, released policy recommendations.
Engaging as College Moved Online
When the pandemic began in March, colleges and universities faced a new reality: campuses closed, in-person classes were cancelled, and all learning moved online. Higher Learning Advocates joined the discussion by submitting a comment on the Notice of Proposed Rule-Making related to distance education under the HEA. As online learning continued, we published resources — a distance ed FAQ, a backgrounder, and a 101 — to help readers better understand federal policy surrounding distance ed.
Urging Congress to Respond to Students’ Needs
Throughout the year, Higher Learning Advocates and our partner organizations have come together to advocate for a variety of student needs. We urged Congress to prioritize support for today’s students (along with 52 partner organizations), support student parents (with 46 partners), and to increase broadband access and include broadband in a relief package (with 52 & 60 partners).
To close out the year, HLA came together with 28 organizations to call for higher education to be prioritized within the Biden Administration, and Executive Director Julie Peller, along with HLA’s Board of Directors, urged Congress to support students’ immediate needs.
Closing the Year by Calling for Change
As we neared the end of 2020, a new Congress and President were elected, and the pandemic worsened, we set our sights to the future to call for needed policy change. In October, we released our Higher Education Policy & Regulatory Transition Recommendations, and in November, published The Playbook for Today’s Students, which highlights existing legislation that Congress could quickly act on to support students. As talks around a relief package seemed to stall, we urged Congress to prioritize students in a much-needed relief package. To sum up our thoughts about what we’d like to see in 2021, Deputy Executive Director Emily Bouck West wrote about HLA’s policy wish list for the coming year.
The Year Ahead
The challenges for today’s students in the year ahead are many. Many are still struggling to meet basic needs, to get online, and to finish their programs. Even more Americans are being left out of the system all together, often in ways that leave low-income individuals and people of color even further behind. And, the economy is still uncertain. Higher Learning Advocates will push even harder to ensure that the needs of today’s students — current and future — are met and that they have the chance to succeed.