A bipartisan effort to help low-income students and reinvest in biomedical research took a major step Tuesday as the U.S. Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittee approved a funding bill that would restore year-round Pell Grant eligibility and significantly increase funds for the National Institutes of Health.
The $161.9 billion bill was the Senate's first bipartisan bill to fund labor, health and education programs in seven years. It will be considered by the full Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday, although it is a long way from becoming law.
"While we grapple with college affordability, the yearlong Pell Grant will go a long way to helping many of our students get through school faster," said Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, a Democrat, during the subcommittee's markup of the bill, adding that the legislators heard from all types of four-year universities and community colleges that there was a need to restore summer Pell Grants.
But there were cuts and sacrifices made in order to reach this compromise, she said.
Despite restoring Pell Grant eligibility, as well as increasing the maximum grant award from $5,815 to $5,935, the legislation is funding the Education Department at $67.8 billion -- $220 million less than last year. However, TRIO, GEAR Up and Federal Work-Study programs will continue to receive the same funding as last year. These programs help disadvantaged students enter and complete college. Adult Education State Grants and Career and Technical Education State Grants would maintain the same funding as last year. However, the Department of Labor's Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant, which funds programs traditionally at community colleges, saw a decrease in funding of about $73,000.
The agreement also called for moving $1.2 billion out of the Pell Grant program to fund other programs, including the increases in NIH funding, and Title I, which benefits low-income K-12 school districts. Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, a Democrat, said the move was setting a dangerous precedent. She said it was "troubling given the fact that students are facing massive and crushing debt to maintain higher education."
The Pell Grant program has about a $7.8 billion surplus, and some observers were expecting deeper cuts to the program.
"It's been our philosophy to not rob one program and give it to another, and this precedent is not a healthy one that we support," said Cyndy Littlefield, vice president for federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. "So that's problematic, but we have an increase in Pell, so that's good, and we have the inclusion of year-round Pell, so that's good."
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who leads the Senate education committee, called the restoration of Pell Grant eligibility the "most important news in higher education out of the Congress this year." The move is expected to help about one million students to continue their education in the summer.
"Simplifying the student aid form will go into effect next year. Those two steps -- year-round Pell and simplifying student aid -- is good news for America's students," he said. "The only caution I would suggest is that this subcommittee … keep a close eye on the year-round Pell to make sure we can continue to do it."
David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the association shares Alexander's concerns about the ongoing fiscal health of the program. But he said the circumstances that helped drive the decision to cut year-round Pell in 2011 are different now. There are fewer students using Pell today, he said, so the program's exploding costs after the recession have eased.
The bill is also providing a $2 billion increase for the NIH, including for research efforts related to cancer and Alzheimer's. The legislation will also help to combat the country's growing opioid abuse epidemic.
"Congress is still in the process of rebuilding the nation’s critical biomedical research investment after years of flat funding," said Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities. "A steady upward funding path is the best way for researchers to take advantage of ever-growing scientific opportunities for finding cures and other treatments."