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Leaders of congressional education committees and other lawmakers

A large group of congressional Democrats last week joined a chorus of higher education associations and consumer advocates who have been pressuring appropriators to preserve funding for the Pell Grant program and restore year-round use of the federal grants.

The Pell Grant is one of the rare higher education programs that receives wide bipartisan support, from Democrats like Virginia Representative Bobby Scott to Republicans like Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx.

Yet restoring year-round Pell Grant funding -- which would allow students to use the grant funds in the summer -- is not a sure thing in the lame-duck session, despite support from members of both parties.

That’s because members of the appropriating committees in both the House and Senate are juggling multiple priorities in a government funding bill for fiscal year 2017. They have limited time and flexibility before a Dec. 9 deadline to reconcile the differences between appropriations bills passed out of both chambers. Meeting the demands of various interest groups also will be difficult for Congress.

A group of 34 higher education groups, civil rights organizations and left-leaning think tanks signed on to an Oct. 21 letter calling on Congress to restore year-round Pell Grants, increase the maximum Pell award amount and extend inflation adjustments.

“Taking money away from Pell Grants would place these key improvements out of reach when a college degree has never been more important or less affordable,” the organizations wrote.

The National College Access Network and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators later sent separate letters to negotiators, urging them to dedicate the $7.8 billion surplus in the Pell Grant program to strengthening the program and restoring year-round funding.

College students can receive up to $5,815 annually in Pell funding. Advocates said the grant is vital in making higher education affordable and preventing students from being forced to take out loans to pay for a degree. But the Obama administration reached a bipartisan agreement in 2011 to cut year-round Pell grants in response to funding shortfalls. Now the program has amassed a large surplus, which higher education advocates want to see dedicated to strengthening and expanding it.

Appropriations bills from both the House and Senate moved money from that surplus to other spending items. While the Senate bill would restore year-round Pell, it was left out of the House version.

A funding bill approved by the U.S. Senate’s Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations subcommittee in June moved some funding from the Pell surplus to the National Institutes of Health and to Title I benefits for low-income K-12 school districts.

Congressional leaders from both parties have agreed to top-line spending limits for an appropriations bill. And lawmakers are also trying to address priorities like funding for the NIH before agencies run out of money from the continuing resolution that funds the government through the Dec. 9 deadline.

Craig Lindwarm, director of congressional and government affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, said the group was excited about the strong bipartisan support for restoring year-round Pell even if it was left out of the House appropriations bill.

“This is not a controversial program,” he said. “It’s definitely time to restore it. The question is how to do that and how to pay for it.”

APLU is one of several organizations advocating for the program to members of Congress. And presidents of member universities have been active in personally advocating for the importance of the program with lawmakers, Lindwarm said.

He warned that the House funding bill includes a cut to Pell Grant appropriations that would set the program back in coming years.

“It sets a baseline of funding that would continue into potential appropriations bills, which is clearly inadequate to meet the needs of the program in the future,” he said.

Because the negotiation process for a spending bill happens behind closed doors, it can be hard for advocates to know what kind of impact they’re having on those talks, said Justin Draeger, NASFAA’s president and CEO.

“Anything that indicates there’s a broad consensus on spending should only be helpful as they try to sort out a last-minute deal,” Draeger said.

The 120 House Democrats who signed the Nov. 1 letter to the appropriations leaders indicate there is broad support within the party for including year-round Pell as well.

“Hearing from the authorizers and higher ed stakeholders is always helpful, and informs our process,” said Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Representative Nita Lowey of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “This is one of many issues that will have to be reconciled as we’re moving forward.”

There’s resignation among certain members of Congress that at least some of the Pell surplus is likely to be used elsewhere. But a Democratic aide with the House Education and the Workforce Committee said communications from a number of education advocates and Pell supporters could limit the damage.

Jessica Thompson, the policy and research director for the Institute for College Access and Success, said student advocates see the Pell surplus as a unique opportunity to reinvest in the program.

“The Pell Grant is the most effective investment the government is making in higher education,” she said. “So the idea that we would take these funds out of the program for completely unrelated purposes continues to be a grave concern for all of us focused on protecting Pell and strengthening Pell.”

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