The 2017 budget bill expected to be sent to President Donald J. Trump this week is a mixed bag when it comes to college access and affordability, sparing some programs from cuts and providing boosts to others, but at the same time dipping into the rainy day fund for Pell Grants.
That was the collective take of several advocacy organizations Monday as they analyzed what the 1665-page budget document approved over the weekend means for the world of higher education.
“Today’s deal gives with one hand and takes with the other,” said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success, an Oakland, California-based nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
Asher praised the budget for its reinstatement of the long-sought-after, year-round Pell Grants, which she said would help more students afford additional courses, such as those offered over the summer, so they can graduate more quickly.
But she criticized the budget for how it “raids” $1.3 billion from surplus Pell Grant funding “despite the urgent need to contain rising student debt and help more people get the education they need to succeed in today’s economy.”
The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit that advocates for low-income students and students of color, expressed similar concerns.
“This is a step in the wrong direction and one that cannot continue, despite the Trump administration’s proposal to do so in its FY18 budget request,” The Education Trust said in a statement.
“As we look toward the FY18 appropriations process, we encourage Congress to keep the interests of low-income students and students of color front and center,” the Ed Trust statement continued. “This means continuing to support year-round Pell. It means rejecting requests to raid the Pell reserves.
“And it means strengthening the Pell program by continuing the annual adjustment for inflation and increasing the maximum grant.”
The bill includes $22.5 billion for Pell Grants, which is the same level as 2016.
“When combined with mandatory funding, these discretionary funds enable the maximum grant to increase to $5,920, an increase of $105 in the 2017-2018 school year,” a summary of the budget released by Democrats in the House Committee on Appropriations states.
Despite the displeasure over the decision to take away Pell Grant surplus money, others were pleased that the budget increases funding to TRIO and GEAR UP programs that are meant to help low-income students access higher education.
Specifically, the budget provides $950 million for TRIO, $50 million more than the 2016 level; $340 million for GEAR UP, which is $17 million more than the 2016 level; and $577.5 million for Aid for Institutional Development programs, an increase of $7.5 million, to support master’s degree programs at HBCUs for the first time since 2014.
“I’m extremely pleased with the increased amounts,” said Kimberly Jones, vice president for public policy and communications at the Council for Opportunity in Education, which advocates for federal TRIO programs, in reference to the TRIO programs.
Jones said she was also pleased that the budget document includes language in which the Department of Education is “strongly encouraged” to provide flexibility to several TRIO applicants whose applications were rejected over minor formatting issues, such as spacing and font size.
She also welcomed the budget’s rejection of a proposed TRIO “demonstration project,” which would have sought to gauge the effectiveness of TRIO programs. The funds for the demonstration project will now go toward an increase in grants for current TRIO grantees.
“We’re not against evaluations and research, but our focus is on making sure as many students as possible access the programs,” Jones said in response to reports that COE has fought evaluations of TRIO programs in the past.
Jones said her organization had been “very active” in letting lawmakers know about the value of TRIO programs and praised the bipartisan support that was ultimately garnered to increase funding for the programs.
The budget — approved over the weekend and formally known as the 2017 Omnibus Appropriations Act — must be signed by Friday, according to the text of the bill.
Democrats touted various aspects of the bill that they considered victories, such as how it denies funding for President Trump’s proposal to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, as well as for extra Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, or ICE agents.
The bill also sets spending for the National Institutes of Health, or NIH — a critical source of research grant funding for colleges and universities — at $34.1 billion, a $2 billion increase over the 2016 level.
The Democratic summary of the bill noted that the amount is $3.2 billion more than the Trump administration proposed for NIH in 2017 and $7.8 billion more than it proposed for 2018.
“The bill re-energizes our nation’s research ecosystem,” said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit that advocates for health research.
“Budget negotiations for FY18 are ongoing but we anticipate that congressional champions for research will do their best to protect medical and health research from budget cuts,” Woolley said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.