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Bipartisan Group in Congress Seeks $20 Billion in Pandemic Aid for Colleges

It’s far less than the $120 billion in federal emergency coronavirus relief colleges and universities are hoping they’ll get, but higher education lobbyists said they’d take the $20 billion in help a bipartisan group in Congress proposed Monday to break the stalemate in Washington over more aid to help the nation get through the next few months of the pandemic.

In addition, the bipartisan group also proposed continuing to excuse most student loan borrowers from making monthly repayments for an additional two months, until April 1. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos earlier this month extended the moratorium, which had been due to run out Jan. 1 until Feb. 1.

The group of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate unveiled the details of a proposal to spend another $908 billion on pandemic relief, including extending aid for the unemployed and small businesses due to run out this month.

The proposal also includes an additional $82 billion in education funding, with the majority, $54 billion, going to K-12 schools, as well as $7.5 billion to governors to distribute at their discretion. In getting only a quarter of the education dollars, higher education’s share would be far less than it received in the CARES Act, when about half of the education aid went to colleges and universities. As was required in Congress’s last coronavirus relief package, half of the higher education dollars in the proposal would be earmarked for emergency student aid.

In unveiling the proposal, the group of lawmakers said they hoped it would break the deadlock between congressional leaders and lead to them approving additional COVID-19 relief. Democrats and Republicans are divided over whether to include aid for states and local governments, an idea strongly opposed by Republicans, and over Democratic opposition to creating a shield protecting businesses, as well as schools and colleges, from pandemic-related lawsuits.

Indeed, the bipartisan group could not agree on the two, separating their proposal to give $160 billion in state and local aid in return for creating a liability shield, from the rest of their proposal. The protection from lawsuits would be retroactive to last December and last for either a year or the end of the national emergency, whichever is later.

Despite the bipartisan proposal, It’s unclear if lawmakers will reach a deal by Friday, as they hope. “The end of any Congress is always shrouded in fog and confusion, and so it’s hard to know exactly where things stand,” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government relations. Though higher education’s share is far less than the amount colleges say they need, lawmakers said the proposal is only intended to be a stopgap until Congress takes up a much larger package after the Biden administration takes office, as expected.

If it is approved by Congress, Hartle said, “Twenty billion dollars for higher education represents an important down payment that will help colleges and universities meet the needs of the students they educate, the staff they employ and the local businesses and communities they support. This amount does not come close to meeting the needs that exist on campus. But it is a very welcome first step.”

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