WASHINGTON -- In a 2012 budget blueprint that administration officials portrayed as austere and Republicans derided as profligate, President Obama kept his promise to privilege spending on education and research -- though not without some potential pain for programs important to colleges and students.
In many of its priorities and emphases, the president's proposed budget for 2012 stood in stark contrast to legislation put forward by House Republicans on Friday  to fund the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends in September. While the GOP measure would slash the maximum Pell Grant by $845, end funding for several other student aid programs (as well as the AmeriCorps national service program), and slice billions of dollars from agencies that support academic research, the Obama budget for 2012 keeps those and other programs largely intact. (See related article  on science funding.)
That doesn't mean, however, that the Obama budget would be pain-free for colleges and students. Given the enormous growth of the Pell Grant Program in the last two years, for instance, the program now faces a $20 billion deficit by the end of 2012, and the administration had to make "tough choices" to sustain the maximum grant at $5,550, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a call with reporters Monday.
The department's 2012 budget calls for ending a three-year experiment that allows students to qualify for two Pell Grants in a calendar year, to allow them to attend college year-round, and for eliminating the subsidy in which the government pays the interest on student loans for graduate students while they are in school. (The subsidy for undergraduate students would remain in place.)
"These are painful cuts, make no mistake about it," Duncan said.
Higher education leaders and advocates for students typically howl in protest when political leaders of any party or political persuasion threaten programs dear to them, and they did not hide their disappointment with the president's proposed cuts Monday. "It is regrettable that the administration is proposing to maintain Pell by making cuts to other student aid programs that provide much needed funds to students," said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
But recognizing the context in which the 2012 budget appears, with Republicans having emerged from the 2010 elections emboldened to shave the deficit and pushing much deeper cuts, Draeger and other college officials wrapped their disappointment in words of understanding for the choices the administration would make. "[M]aintaining funding for the Pell program, which could be facing a $20 billion shortfall in FY 2012, is our highest priority," Draeger said. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify some information.)
"It is clear the administration has put a lot of effort and care into producing a budget that strives to protect and preserve student financial aid," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said in a prepared statement. "While the higher education community does not agree with all the choices made, we support the overall objective of ensuring a viable array of student aid programs anchored by the indispensable Pell Grant Program."
Unlike House Republican leaders, who in their first crack at a Tea Party-friendly federal budget plan cut disproportionately from health, education and labor programs, President Obama's 2012 budget blueprint generally shields what he calls "investments" in education, research and a few other key areas in an overall budget that begins a five-year drive to freeze most federal spending and reduce the deficit. The Education Department's overall budget would grow by 4.3 percent in 2012 under the president's budget.
"Education is an investment that we need to win the future -- just like innovation is an investment that we need to win the future; just like infrastructure is an investment that we need to win the future," the president said in unveiling the budget at a Baltimore math and science school. "And to make sure that we can afford these investments, we’re going to have to get serious about cutting back on those things that would be nice to have but we can do without."
Those things the country "can do without" appear to include relatively few of the many programs that matter most to colleges. The administration's 2012 budget would eliminate a handful of programs that have long been targeted by presidents of both parties, including the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program (which provides matching funds to states to encourage them to award need-based financial aid) and the Byrd Honors Scholarships.
But it would sustain some programs that have been vulnerable in recent years, such as the Perkins Loan and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Programs. (The Perkins program would get a facelift much like the one the administration proposed in 2009,  when a restructuring of the loan program for needy students got dropped during the endgame  for the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2010.)
The administration's proposal would sustain the vast majority of other Education Department programs for students and colleges at their 2010 levels, as seen in the table below.
Some other priorities for higher education would take a meaningful hit. Funds for career and technical education in the Education Department, some of which flow to community colleges, would drop by about $250 million. Duncan said that the programs under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act "haven't lived up to their promise" and that the administration wants to "strengthen them before we invest in them further." Among the casualties would be a separate, $103 million stream of funds for the Tech-Prep Program,  which provides funds to states for partnerships between school districts and (mostly two-year) postsecondary institutions.
The Obama budget would also create a new competitive grant program (modeled on the Race to the Top Program for elementary and secondary education) that would reward states that align high school graduation requirements with colleges' entry and placement standards, strengthen transfer and articulation between colleges, and institute performance-based funding for colleges. (If you guessed that it had the phrase "college completion" in its title, you were right: it's called "the College Completion Incentive Grants Program.")
It's All About Pell
But virtually all of the attention in the days and weeks going forward is likely to be about the Pell Grant -- the administration's efforts to sustain it at its current levels, and attempts by Congressional Republicans to cut it back.
Spending on the grants, which have long been the bedrock of the American student financial aid system, has exploded since 2008, due to several factors : significantly increasing college enrollments (with much of the growth among for-profit institutions), the economic downturn that changed many students' financial situations for the worse, and 2008 changes that expanded the number of students eligible for the grants.
The program has long had bipartisan support, and Republicans insist that it retains that support, even as House Republicans, in the legislation they put forward Friday to fund the rest of the government's 2011 operations, propose cutting the maximum grant to $4,705. "Nobody should be comfortable with huge cuts like these," Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said Monday in response to a reporter's question about whether he would be "comfortable" with the $800 cut in students' grants. But given the enormous expansion in the program's costs, Kline said, Republican leaders "thought it was important" to include Pell in their overall efforts to rein in federal spending.
Administration officials made a different set of choices in recognizing that the Pell program cannot continue to grow at any cost -- "responsible decisions that are necessary so that students can continue to pay for college," Duncan said.
Duncan said that administration officials had seen "no evidence" yet that the 2008 change in the Higher Education Act that allowed students to effectively get "two Pells" in a year to study in the summer was "accelerating students' college completion time." And the program had proven to be 10 times costlier than anticipated, to a tune of "numbers ... in the multiple billions" of dollars, Duncan said, calling the initiative "unsustainable."
Officials at the California Community Colleges said their data showed that about 23,000 students at the system's 112 colleges had received a second Pell Grant in the 2009-10 academic year, and that the students -- more than half of whom are Hispanic, black, or Asian -- had higher average grade point averages and number of earned credits than did other full-time students who did not receive Pell Grants.
Duncan said that while the year-round Pell program certainly helped some students, "in tough budget times, we saw it as a bigger priority to maintain the maximum Pell Grant of $5,550, rather than having a smaller number of students get $11,000."
The other people who might see themselves as having been thrown overboard by the administration to sustain Pell are the nation's graduate and professional students with student loans, who would lose the benefit they now enjoy of having the federal government pay the interest on those loans while they are in graduate school. Administration budget documents said that the subsidy "has no effect on encouraging students to pursue graduate education."
The in-school interest subsidy has been a target of deficit-cutting Congressional Republicans  and of financial aid policy makers when they envision a sounder and fairer student aid system  -- not just as it applies to graduate students, but for all student loan borrowers.
Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, said his group is "concerned that the President’s proposal to eliminate the in-school interest subsidy on loans to graduate students as a means of covering some the costs of the Pell program may discourage American students from attending graduate school at a time when the nation needs to encourage its own best talent."
But Jason Delisle, a budget analyst at the New America Foundation, included the subsidy as one of his "key questions"  about the administration's 2012 budget plan for education.
"The president’s proposal would end this benefit for graduate students arguing that it does not encourage students to attend graduate school, is not well-targeted to borrowers who need extra repayment help, and is unnecessary because of other loan repayment and forgiveness benefits available on federal loans," Delisle wrote. "These arguments seem to apply just as well to the in-school interest subsidy for undergraduate students. Why did the administration propose eliminating the benefit on these grounds for graduate students but opt to maintain it for undergraduate students? Are the policy’s weaknesses only applicable to graduate students?"
Among other highlights of the Obama budget:
- The National Endowments for the Humanities and for the Arts would each see their budgets drop by $22 million, or nearly 13 percent. The cut would return the humanities endowment roughly to its budget for 2008, said Jim Leach, the agency's chairman. "It reflects NEH’s obligation to help restrain spending in a time of great fiscal challenges for the nation."
- The Education Department budget would eliminate the TEACH Grant program, a several-year-old program aimed at encouraging teachers to work in high-need fields, and replace it with a new competition for states. The $185 million competitive program would let states give $10,000 scholarship to would-be teachers who attend the "most effective" teacher education programs.
Obama Administration's Key 2011 Funding Requests Related to Higher Education
|EDUCATION DEPARTMENT||2010 Actual (000s)||2011 Continuing Resolution (000s)||2012 Request (000s)|
|Pell Grants||$36,559,000|| $35,820,000||$36,121,000|
|Maximum Pell Grant||$5,550||$5,550||$5,550|
|Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants||757,465||757,465||757,465|
|Perkins Loan cancellations||0||0||0|
|College Completion Incentive Grants||n/a||n/a||50,000|
|Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships||63,852|| 63,852||0|
|Academic Competitiveness /SMART Grants||1,336,000||(36,000)||0|
|Iraq/Afghanistan Service Grants|| 15||182||211|
|TEACH Grants||26,838|| 22,178||199,149|
|Strengthening Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities||30,169||30,169||30,169|
|Strengthening Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian Institutions||15,084||15,084||15,084|
|Strengthening Historically Black Colleges and Universities||266,586||266,586||266,586|
|Strengthening Historically Black Graduate Institutions||61,425||61,425||61,425|
|Master's Degree Programs at HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions||11,500||11,500||11,500|
|Strengthening Predominantly Black Institutions||10,801||10,801||10,801|
|Minority Science and Engineering Improvement||9,503||9,503||9,503|
|Aid to Hispanic Serving Institutions||239,429||239,429||239,429|
|Strengthening Asian American and Pacific Islander-serving Institutions||3,600||3,600||3,600|
|Strengthening Native American-serving Nontribal Institutions||8,600||8,600||8,600|
|Tribally controlled Voc-Tech Institutions||8,162||8,162||8,162|
|National Technical Institute for the Deaf||68,437||68,437||65,037|
|International education/foreign language||125,881||125,881||125,881|
|Fund for Improvement of Postsecondary Education||159,403|| 159,403||150,000|
|Demonstration Projects to Ensure Access for Students With Disabilities||6,755||6,755||0|
|Vocational and adult education|
|Carl D. Perkins Act State Grants||1,160,911||1,160,911||1,000,000|
|Tech Prep||102,923|| 102,923||0|
|TRIO programs||910,089|| 910,089||920,089|
|College Access Challenge Grant Program|| 150,000||150,000||150,000|
|Special programs for migrant students||36,668||36,668||36,668|
|Child Care Access Program||16,034||16,034||16,034|
|Byrd Scholarships||42,000|| 42,000||0|
|Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need||31,030||31,030||40,717|
|Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity Program||3,000||3,000||3,000|
|Research and statistics||659,006|| 659,006||760,473|
|Office for Civil Rights||103,024||103,024||107,772|
|Adult Employment and Training||861,540||861,540||860,527|
|Green Jobs Innovation Fund||40,000||40,000||60,000|
|Dislocated Workers Training||1,413,000||1,413,000||1,403,763|
|Career Pathways Innovation Fund||125,000||125,000||0|
|AmeriCorps state and national grants||372,547||372,547||399,790|
|Institute of Museum and Library Services||282,251||282,251||242,605|
|National Endowment for the Humanities||167,500||167,500||146,255|
|National Endowment for the Arts||167,500||167,500||146,000|
|National Historical Publications and Records Commission||13,000||10,000||5,000|
|State Department Academic Exchanges (Fulbright, etc.)||358,627||357,348||358,998|