Education Advocates Uneasily Awaiting Trump Budget - Higher Education
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Education Advocates Uneasily Awaiting Trump Budget

by Catherine Morris

With the threat of a government shutdown looming at the end of this week, it is clear that hammering out a budget in Congress will not be an easy process. Amid the broader conversation about funding issues, which has often been dominated by President Trump’s calls for increased military spending and building a wall along the border with Mexico, it still remains to be seen where education spending will fall in the greater scheme of the things.

“I’ve been in higher education for a long time, but I’ve not seen this level of uncertainty and unpredictability,” Dr. Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), said on Monday. “Usually with a new administration we have some idea of what is important, what the values are and how they are approaching things. Certainly, we knew that with the Obama administration. Here, we know very, very little.”

Dr. Judith Eaton is president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Eaton was speaking at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Capitol Forum, an annual event that brings representatives of the nation’s Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs) to Washington, D.C., to advocate for their institutions with elected officials. There are 472 HSIs across the United States and Puerto Rico, a number that is expected to grow along with the United States’ Hispanic population. Institutions earn the HSI designation if their student body is 25 percent or more Hispanic.

Higher education advocates have reason for concern about what the future might bring. Under the terms of the new administration’s “skinny budget,” released in mid-March, education would take a hit. Every new administration produces a budget outline in its first few months of office that outlines their priorities and legislative agenda. President Trump is expected to release a full budget for fiscal year 2018 in May or later.

While the budget that will come out later this spring may bear limited resemblance to the skinny budget that came out in March, the new administration’s initial sally into budget-crafting reveals that education spending most likely will not be a top priority. The “America First” budget proposed cutting the Department of Education’s budget by 13.5 percent, or $9 billion, slashing funds for programs like federal work-study, TRIO and GEAR UP.

The administration also proposed dipping into Pell Grant dollars to appropriate $3.9 billion from the fund’s surplus, a move that garnered criticism from many corners since Pell surpluses typically are held in reserve for economically rocky times.

While all of the above would have an impact on HSIs, the skinny budget also appeared to cut appropriations that go specifically to HSIs and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While the budgets called for “maintaining” $492 million in appropriations for HSIs and HBCUs, the current level of spending for those institutions is actually $577 million, leaving a discrepancy of close to $100 million. It is not clear which institutions would be expected to withstand the worst of that cut.

Jonathan Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education (ACE), said on Monday that higher education is likely to fall in priority behind issues such as health care, immigration and tax reform. “The Department of Education is something of an afterthought,” Fansmith said, but pointed out that colleges and universities still would be impacted by broader policy changes.

Immigration is a particularly critical area for colleges and universities to watch. The approximately 1 million international students who are enrolled in school in the United States are a crucial source of tuition revenue for many institutions. One recent study found that international students pay up to three times more in tuition than in-state students do at public schools.

In addition, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 DACA recipients attend school in the United States, so any changes to DACA’s status, or if the BRIDGE Act were to gain momentum, would have a significant impact on the landscape of higher education. For HSIs, DACA is a particularly critical issue since many DACA recipients are of Hispanic descent.

In its 2017 legislative agenda, HACU also emphasized the importance of STEM education among Hispanics, who earned only 6.8 percent of all doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in 2015. Among their many legislative proposals, HACU included a request for a $30 million dollar competitive grants program within NSF to support HSIs’ research, curriculum, and infrastructure development in science and research.

HBCUs and tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) have collectively received more than $650 million in targeted funds from NSF, while HSIs so far have not received any dedicated funds.

Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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