What’s on the Legislative Agenda for 2016?

By Dennis Pierce

The Higher Education Act, the Perkins Act, America’s College Promise and more.

Community colleges will be getting a lot of attention on Capitol Hill in 2016. Besides legislation supporting President Obama’s call for tuition-free community college, AACC will be watching to see whether Congress finally reauthorizes the Higher Education Act and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, both of which are overdue for a rewrite — and, if so, how community colleges will fare in the final bills.

Regarding the HEA reauthorization process, there are a few key issues that AACC will be watching closely, said Jim Hermes, associate vice president for government relations.

For one thing, AACC would like to see lawmakers restore the year-round Pell Grant program, which would enable students to complete their degrees more quickly. Congress created a year-round Pell Grant in 2008, but after just one year, lawmakers eliminated the program for budgetary reasons.

Also, AACC would like to see Congress include language in the bill that would change how the graduation rate for community colleges is calculated.

“Right now, the most often cited graduation rate for community colleges is 21 percent,” Hermes says. “We think that’s misleading for a number of reasons.”

That rate is based only on the subset of students who enroll in community college right after high school, he explains, and it doesn’t take into account students who transfer to a four-year institution before completing an associate degree.

What’s more, that rate is based on the percentage of students who complete an associate degree within three years, or 150 percent of the typical program length. Because of the challenges that community college students face — some coming from low-income households or working full time to support themselves or their families — “many of the students we serve take longer than three years to complete their programs,” Hermes says. “We would like to see a rate that is based on a six-year window.”

Research suggests that a six-year graduation window would be a more accurate measure of community college success, he adds. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the six-year graduation rate of full- time community college students is 57 percent.

“Because it’s an election year, ‘we will be working to get these issues in front of the presidential candidates as well.’ “

AACC also hopes that any new version of the Higher Education Act will not include a provision that holds colleges financially accountable if their students fail to repay their federal loans. Colleges have limited control over loan repayment, Hermes says, and this institutional “risk sharing” could saddle community colleges with burdensome penalties.

Reauthorization of the Perkins Act is expected to be a more straightforward process, Hermes says, and AACC’s key interests are to make sure funds are available for high-quality career and technical education programs serving adult learners as well as high school students and to make sure the bill aligns with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the nation’s workforce education law, which was just reauthorized last year.

Of course, AACC will continue to advocate for the America’s College Promise Act and any other legislation supporting tuition-free community college, Hermes says. And because it’s an election year, “we will be working to get these issues in front of the presidential candidates as well,” he notes.

One more issue that AACC will be watching in 2016 is how the new overtime rules enacted under the Fair Labor Standards Act will affect community colleges. In 2015, the Labor Department issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, changing the salary threshold for nonexempt employees from $23,660 per year to around $51,000 per year, which could significantly increase the number of community college employees who are eligible for overtime pay.

“This could have major cost implications for employers,” Hermes says. “Because of these implications, we are hoping there will be a phased-in approach to the new rules” that will give community colleges more time to adjust.

AACC will continue to provide guidance to help its members advocate for these issues, Hermes says — and he recommends that community college leaders focus on the issues that resonate the most. “Those are the issues you’ll be the most effective advocates for,” he says.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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