It may be moot if President Bush follows through on his threat to veto a spending bill for education, health and labor programs. But for the moment, the Pell Grant program is enjoying an embarrassment of riches after years of stagnation.
Weeks after Congress approved and President Bush signed budget legislation to provide billions in federal mandatory funds that will add $490 to the maximum Pell Grant in 2008, negotiators from the Senate and House of Representatives reached agreement Thursday on a spending bill for the Education Department and other agencies that would raise the maximum grant by another $125 through the annual appropriations process.
If that increase holds -- and the odds are iffy at best, given the president's threatened veto -- the federal government's core program for needy students will have seen its maximum grant rise from $4,050 (where it was stuck for five years) in January to $4,925, a 21.6 percent increase. That includes the $260 increase that the new Democratic Congress added in its spending bill for 2007 ($4,310); the $125 increase that Congress has settled on for 2008 ($4,435); and the $490 in additional funds from the College Cost Reduction and Access Act ($4,925).
"This session of Congress is truly the Pell Grant Congress," said an ebullient Cynthia A. Littlefield, director of federal relations at the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. She and other college lobbyists had been warned that an increase in discretionary (or annually appropriated) funds for Pell were unlikely because of the infusion of money from the budget legislation. The Senate's own spending bill, in fact, proposed no increase above the 2007 level of $4,310, while the House's companion legislation called for an increase to $4,700. As in many cases in such negotiations, the lawmakers came down somewhere in between.
The conference agreement reached by the House and Senate negotiators Thursday on the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies also would:
- Provide $30 billion in funds for the National Institutes of Health, up from $28.9 million in 2007 and $100 million more than the Senate had proposed in its version of the 2008 spending bill.
- Increase spending on the TRIO programs for low-income students to $868 million, up from $828 million in 2007, consistent with what the House proposed, and $10 million more than the Senate had proposed. The GEAR UP program, which also helps needy students prepare for college, would receive $318 million, $15 million more than last year.
- Keep spending flat for the campus-based aid programs and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Program, rejecting cuts that President Bush had sought in his 2008 budget.
- Provide $515 million for minority serving and other colleges under Title III of the Higher Education Act, $10 million more than the programs received in 2007 but about $140 million less than the House had recommended.
The appropriations legislation also keeps a provision that would require all research financed by the National Institutes of Health to be published online and made freely available. Advocates for open access favor the measure, but publishers generally oppose it.
President Bush has repeatedly vowed to veto the spending legislation for these agencies because it would spend billions more than the president himself recommended for the departments. He has characterized the spending as fiscally irresponsible, while Democrats said the new funds were needed to make up for important social services that had been starved while Republicans controlled Congress.