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WASHINGTON -- Congressional budget negotiators on Monday reached an agreement on funding levels for individual federal programs that would increase spending on the National Institutes of Health and student aid programs.

The accord, which would finance the federal government through through September, restores many -- but not all -- of last year’s across-the-board budget reductions to scientific research and campus-based aid. Advocates for higher education and research funding described the proposal as a mixed bag.

House and Senate appropriators have been negotiating over how to allocate money across government programs since mid-December, when Congress passed a broad budget bill setting top-line funding levels.

The legislation unveiled Monday by the two chairs of the appropriations committees is a lengthy proposal that lays out specific funding priorities and directs federal agencies on how to spend their money.

National Institutes of Health

Under the agreement, which Congress is expected to vote on this week, the NIH would receive $1 billion more for the current fiscal year compared with the 2013 fiscal year, in which automatic across-the-board cuts eliminated $1.55 billion from its budget.

Those cuts, known as sequestration, led to a reduction in 640 competitive research grants at the NIH, the agency has said. They also forced the closure of scientific laboratories and layoffs of some research personnel at campuses across the country. Higher education associations have forcefully lobbied against the cuts, arguing that they undermine the country’s economic competitiveness.

The increase in this year’s NIH budget (to a total of $29.9 billion) keeps its funding level well below that of the 2012 fiscal year, but it would allow the agency to continue funding current research projects and begin about 385 additional research studies and trials, according to Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who leads the appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal spending on health, education, labor and pension programs.

The National Science Foundation’s budget is set at nearly $7.2 billion in the agreement. That’s an increase of $287 million over last year, but it leaves the agency’s funding about $69 million lower than it was before sequestration.

The Association of American Universities, which represents the nation’s leading research universities, said in a statement Monday night that the proposal offered a “mixed picture” for federal research funding.

“Some agencies fared rather well, while some did poorly,” the AAU statement said. “We appreciate efforts to ameliorate sequestration, but even a partial sequester makes it impossible for Congress to take any serious steps to close the nation’s innovation deficit.”

Changes to Pell

The proposal would fund the Pell Grant program at last year’s level, but increases in mandatory spending are expected to bump up the maximum award next year by $85, to $5,730. The number of recipients is estimated to increase from 9.1 million in the current academic year to 9.3 million next year, according to Harkin’s office.

The legislation would also require the Education Department to provide Congress with more information about enrollment and graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients. The provision orders the department to submit to Congress a report within four months on the data it has on Pell enrollment and graduation information by institution. Officials at the department would also have to develop a plan to minimize the Pell reporting burden on institutions, provide suggestions on how to improve the tracking of transfer and nontraditional students, and develop strategies to boost Pell recipients’ graduation rates.

Other campus-based student aid programs, both of which were cut by sequestration, would also see a boost. The Federal Work Study program budget would rise by $49 million and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program would go up by $37 million.

The agreement would provide $2.6 billion ($121 million more than in 2013) to the Labor Department for Workforce Investment Act grants to states for job training and assistance for low-income workers.

Studies on Regulatory Burden, Innovation Grants

Congressional appropriators also set aside $1 million for a National Research Council study on the impact of federal regulations and reporting requirements on colleges and universities face. Senator Lamar Alexander, the senior Republican on the Senate’s education committee, convened a working group on this issue late last year as part of the panel’s work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

Separately, the legislation would also direct the National Institutes of Health to also establish a working group that includes university members to develop ways to measure and reduce the administrative burden on researchers who receive NIH funding.

Appropriators also allocated $75 million for the Obama administration’s “First in the World” initiative, which would give grants to colleges pursuing innovative strategies aimed at improving educational outcomes and efficiency.

Loan Servicing Changes

The agreement clarifies that there will be funding for the nonprofit student loan servicers, whose mandatory funding Congress eliminated in December when it passed a compromise deal on the overall funding level  for the federal budget.

The agreement also directs the Education Department to harmonize its standards for evaluating its largest servicers -- Sallie Mae, Nelnet, Great Lakes and Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency -- with its metrics for its several dozen smaller, not-for-profit servicers. The agreement orders the Department to report to Congress by March 31 on how it plans to streamline its loan servicing evaluation standards.

The National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts would each receive $146 million under the agreement, $16 million more than they received in 2013.


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