As anticipated, the outcome wasn't pretty: a tiny increase in the maximum Pell Grant, level funding for biomedical research, and serious damage to Perkins Loans and several key health professions programs. But it could have been much, much worse for higher education.
The House of Representatives subcommittee that provides funds for education and job training programs and the National Institutes of Health drafted its 2006 spending bill Thursday, and because House leaders had given the panel significantly less money to work with than it had last year, it voted to eliminate or slash funding for dozens of programs over all.
But all things considered, the measure produced by the House panel treated colleges and universities decently -- and, on the whole, far better than the budget President Bush proposed in February. "Given the subcommittee's allocation, and what the president had put on table, we're grateful that we came out of this alive," said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
The bill put forward by the panel's Republican majority, which was approved 11 to 7 along party lines (after nasty bickering over to what extent the tight budget could be blamed on Republican-sponsored tax cuts and profligate military and other spending), would protect several programs that the administration's budget had recommended eliminating, including the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education program, the Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Gear Up programs that help disadvantaged students attend college, and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program.
Those programs would all be financed at their current 2005 levels under the subcommittee's plan: $837 million for the Upward Bound, Talent Search, and the other TRIO programs; $306 million for Gear Up, $1.2 billion for the Perkins vocational program, and $65 million for LEAP, which matches state spending on need-based aid.
The subcommittee's budget would provide enough money to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $50 to $4,100 -- half of the $100 rise called for by President Bush's budget and by the 2006 budget resolution approved by Congress. The House measure also would shuffle money around to eliminate the program's $4.3 billion shortfall. It also would finance most other key student aid programs -- such as federal work study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants -- at their current levels.
After months of lobbying and sky-is-falling rhetoric, student aid advocates expressed appreciation and not a small amount of relief.
"We're cautiously optimistic, though it's only the beginning of the process," said Susan Trebach, a spokeswoman for the Council for Educational Opportunity, which lobbies for the TRIO programs.
Baime, of the community college association, applauded the increase in Pell Grants and the restoration of the Perkins vocational programs. Also of interest to two-year institutions, the subcommittee's spending plan would restore about $400 million in adult education funds that the Bush budget proposed eliminating, and it would provide $125 million for a new community college job training initiative that President Bush has touted -- half of the $250 million the president requested.
Cynthia J. Littlefield, director of government relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, credited an aggressive lobbying campaign by the Student Aid Alliance with the mostly favorable outcome for financial assistance programs. The one casualty was that the subcommittee endorsed the Bush administration's proposal to provide no new funds for the Perkins Loan Program, which gives colleges money to lend at a fixed low rate to students from low-income families. But the House panel, in contrast to the administration, did not propose that colleges return the federal portion of the Perkins funds that they already have and use to make new loans to students.
Like student aid supporters, advocates for biomedical research were generally relieved by the treatment of their most significant priority -- in the case of the latter, the NIH research budget, which would rise to $28.5 billion in the subcommittee's plan. Although that increase of $145 million, or 0.5 percent, over the 2005 budget seems paltry compared to the huge boosts the NIH grew accustomed to as Congress doubled its budget in the first half of this decade, officials at research universities know the budget climate is tough and aren't complaining.
They are deeply troubled, though, that the House panel, like the Bush administration, would wipe out about $250 million of the $300 million that Congress provided last year for federal programs that support the education and training of health professionals.
The subcommittee's bill would provide $47 million for the Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students program, but wipe out another $70 million or so for other programs that encourage racial and socioeconomic diversity among health professionals, another $89 million that supports primary care programs in medicine and dentistry, and $82 million to encourage interdisciplinary work in such areas as allied health and geriatrics. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) called the committee's stance "deplorable" and an "assault on minority serving institutions."
The Bush administration has proposed severe cutbacks in several of those programs in recent years, but Congressional appropriators have consistently restored them. The fact that the House panel did not concerns health educators. "We're very disappointed that the subcommittee did not restore funding for these programs," said Dave Moore, senior associate vice president for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges, who said the cuts, if enacted, could be "devastating" to some university programs.
Moore said that the association had "a little bit of hope" that the Senate, which last year voted to spend more on the health professions programs than the House did, might restore the programs when it considers its version of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill in the next several weeks.
But he noted somewhat ruefully that health educators would not be alone on that path. "Anybody that got cut or eliminated in the House and thought they should not have is already running across the Hill to complain to their senators, so there'll be tremendous competition," Moore said, for such relief.
Across Capitol Hill Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill that would increase funds for the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts by $5 million each in the 2006 fiscal year. The full committee approved an amendment sponsored by Sen. Robert W. Byrd (D-W.V.) that would boost spending on the NEH to $143.1 million and funds for the NEA to $126.3 million.
A Senate subcommittee had voted Tuesday to keep spending on the two agencies at last year's levels, $138.1 million and $121.3 million, respectively. A competing measure passed by the House of Representatives last month would give the NEH $143 million and the NEA $131 million.