WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders agreed Tuesday on a spending bill that would avoid a government shutdown and provide modest increases to student aid programs and scientific research.
The compromise deal, which would fund most of the federal government until next October, would also restore a pathway to student aid for students who do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, like a GED.
The bill would fund almost all of the federal government through the end of next September, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, which would be funded only temporarily as Congressional Republicans seek ways to block President Obama's executive actions on immigration.
The federal government has been operating since October 1 on a stop-gap funding measure, which expires at midnight on Thursday. Congressional leaders indicated that they may pass another temporary funding bill to keep the government running into the weekend as the House and Senate rush to hold votes on the larger compromise legislation.
Among the more significant higher education policy changes in the bill is the partial restoration of the “ability to benefit” program. The legislation would allow students without a high school diploma to get federal student aid as long as they are enrolled in college-level career pathway programs. Advocates for community colleges and low-income students have been pushing to restore that pathway to aid since Congress eliminated it in 2012. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to clarify eligibility requirements for ability to benefit students.)
Modest Student Aid Increases
Student aid programs would either remain at their current levels of funding or see only slight increases under the measure.
The bill allows the maximum Pell Grant award to increase next academic year by $100 to $5,830 because of an automatic mandatory increase in funding.
However, higher education advocates said they were concerned that the deal would cut $303 million in discretionary funding from the Pell Grant program this year. While the cut has no immediate effect because the program has a surplus this year, advocates argue that chipping away at the program would make it more difficult to close the funding shortfall that is expected in the next several years.
The deal appears to be an endorsement of a plan approved earlier this year by a Senate appropriations subcommittee, led by Senator Tom Harkin, to tap into the Pell Grant surplus in order to help fund the collection of federal student loans. Negotiators allocated an additional $230.9 million to the Education Department’s $1.17 billion loan-servicing budget so that it could pay a handful of not-for-profit loan servicers whose mandatory funding was eliminated by Congress last year.
Aside from the Pell Grant program, several other student aid programs would also see slight increases in funding. The legislation would, for instance, increase funding for Federal Work Study by $15 million, to a total of $989.7 million.
Funding for TRIO programs, which aid low-income and first-generation college students, would rise by $1.5 million, to nearly $839.8 million. The legislation also includes a provision aimed at speeding up the delivery of TRIO Support Services Grants.
Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants would be funded at their current $733 million.
Boost for Institutional Aid, Cut for Innovation
The budget deal would increase the federal money that directly supports colleges and universities that serve high percentages of minority students and low-income students. The bill would increase by $8.7 million to $530 million the funding that such institutions receive through Title III programs.
The legislation would cut, however, the Obama administration’s grant program aimed at promoting innovation in higher education. The so-called “First in the World” program would be reduced to $60 million from the $75 million that was awarded in the past fiscal year.
Research Funding Inches Upward
Funding for scientific research would increase under the deal, but at far lower rates than research advocates had hoped.
The National Institutes of Health would receive $30.3 billion, representing a $150-million increase in its base funding. That amount is below the $198-million increase the Obama administration had requested, and far lower than the $605-million boost that a Senate subcommittee approved this summer.
The bill also provides $7.3 billion for the National Science Foundation, a $172 million increase from its current level but below the $7.6 billion the administration requested. And the deal would keep funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a favorite target of spending hawks, at its current amount of $146 million, which is in line with President Obama's recommendation.
Money for Vets and Disabled Students
Still, the legislation also allocates funding for two new higher education initiatives.
The bill sets aside $2.5 million for the creation of a new national center for students with disabilities. The program would help disabled students transition between high school and college, as well as train faculty and staff on how best to serve and accommodate students with disabilities on their campuses.
In addition, lawmakers agreed on funding a $5-million grant program that provides services for student veterans on college campuses. The program has not been funded since 2010.
Congress: Focus on Sexual Assaults
The budget for the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which conducts Title IX investigations, would increase by $1.6 million to $100 million. Appropriators said that increase, which was slightly lower than the administration had requested, was "to help ensure that educational institutions are protecting students from sexual violence."
Congressional appropriators also said they expected the Education Department to use its student aid administration funding “to continue its efforts to prevent sexual violence on campus.”
College Ratings Unaffected
The budget deal does not include any changes to the Obama administration’s college ratings plan.
The bill does not fund the Education Department’s request for $10 million to help it produce the ratings. But neither does it include a provision that prohibits the department from moving ahead with development of the ratings.
Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican and incoming chair of the Senate education committee, had previously said he wanted to use the appropriations process to block the administration from producing college ratings.
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