Final Budget Bill Cuts Funding For Higher Education

This story was written by Madeline Garber, Tufts Daily
President George W. Bush last month signed a budget bill for 2008 lowering the maximum Pell Grant and slashing spending on academic research.

The new law allows for a maximum spending of only $4,241 per Pell Grant this year.

But money allotted in September's College Cost Reduction and Access Act will up the maximum Pell Grant to $4,731. The maximum was $4,310 in 2007.

Congress passed the $555-billion omnibus legislation, which will finance every federal agency in 2008 except the Pentagon, after a month of negotiations between Bush and Congress.

The original bill that the House of Representatives proposed in November would have raised the maximum Pell Grant scholarship by $875, according to Jessica Schafer, the communications director for Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Markey represents Medford and Arlington, among other parts of the state.

But Bush vetoed that bill just a few days after it was put forth, saying that it exceeded his budget requests for federal education funds. This forced lawmakers to shave millions of dollars off of their originally proposed appropriations.

Schafer said that the final bill, titled HR 2764, illustrates the ways in which bills can change during the time between when they are first passed by the House and when they are finally enacted.

"The disparities between the funding provided for educational programs in the omnibus appropriations bill ... and original commitments by congressional leadership are due to the intransigence of the president," Shafer told the Daily. "Lawmakers have to set the policies, and that's a very big hurdle, but actually funding the policies is the next step ... There's often a second fight over spending, and that's what we're witnessing here."

The changes came as a surprise to many, in the wake of September's College Cost Reduction and Access Act.

Designed to make college more affordable for lower-income families, the act promised to filter $11.4 billion over the next five years into the federal Pell Grant program, which provides financial support for university students with the greatest need.

The legislation also cut government funding for private student loan companies by $20 billion, consolidating financial aid in the hands of the federal government.

HR 2764, however, seems to unravel much of what the College Cost Reduction and Access Act had tied together for poorer university students and their families.

Under the new omnibus bill, funds for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will increase by only 0.04 percent, which is significantly lower than the expected 3.7 percent inflation rate for biomedical research in 2008.

NIH is the top provider of funds for biomedical research at universities.

Financial aid programs such as TRIO, a group of six federal programs that help prepare disadvantaged students for college, will see their funds frozen at 2007 amounts.

According to the Tufts Director of Financial Aid Patricia Reilly, about 500 students at Tufts receive Pell Grants ranging from $100 to $4,310. Of these students, 150 receive the maximum amount.

"Whatever funding for the Pell Grant program is cut," Reilly said in an e-mail, "the hurdles that these students face grow a little higher, and their access to higher education becomes a little more difficult."

Rob Baumel, the director of financial aid at local Middlesex Community College, told the Daily that despite the slashed increase in Pell Grant funding, the change brought on by the September bill is still a good step.

"I am very happy to see that the Pell Grant award has gone up this year ... because there are many, many years when no increases occur," he said, adding that growths in the maximum award are often proposed but then dropped during budget negotiations.
br>But according to Baumel, the higher maximum grant will shift funding away from students who are currently receiving a smaller amount of Pell Grant aid.

"The major [negative impact] is to our group of students who are cut off at the bottom," he said. "While the table has shifted upwards and the awards have been increased, the bottom part of the Pell Grant table has been cut off."

He said that while about 1,800 of over 5,000 students at Middlesex receive Pell Grant awards, it appears that only "a small number of students" at the college fall into that category.

Bush's original budget proposal cut $900 million from every study-aid program outside of work study and Pell Grants, said Alison Mills, press secretary for Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), who represents Somerville, Cambridge, Boston and Chelsea.

Congress, however, rejected the cuts for HR 2764, providing $900 million more than Bush's requested amount and supporting initiatives like Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants.

The $276 million that Congress originally planned to inject into two programs to help colleges train aspiring schoolteachers in math, science and foreign languages was decreased to $2 million.

A select few programs, however, will receive increased funding as a result of HR 2764.

Funding for NASA's earth and space science programs will increase by 3.4 percent to $5.57 billion, and federal support for nursing education and programs training healthcare workers will be expanded.

Those in favor of open-access publishing may also find a silver lining in the bill's passage.

Under HR 2764, taxpayer-financed research can no longer be locked away in private journals, and recipients of NIH grants will be required to post their findings in an institute-run computer database.

In the end, however, many are calling HR 2764 a blow to the future of higher education.

"Bush wouldn't allow us to increase funds a half-percent over last year's [amounts]," Schafer said. "The amount of money that the White House and Congress battled over ... was a total of $20 billion ... Bush demanded 10 times that amount to continue to fund the war in Iraq for another year."
© 2008 Tufts Daily via U-WIRE