Protecting Pell? Critics Say Budget Wouldn't

By cutting a third of program's surplus and slashing other aid programs, Trump administration's first budget would imperil college access, advocates argue.

March 17, 2017
 

The document outlining the Trump administration's first budget, released in a bare-bones outline Thursday, states that the White House plan "safeguards" the Pell Grant program and would leave the key financial aid source for needy students on "sound financial footing for the next decade."

But many advocates for low-income students say the opposite is true. By taking about a third of the program's multi-billion-dollar surplus and cutting other college access programs, they assert, the new administration would jeopardize Pell's long-term sustainability and harm the prospects of low-income students.

What the White House is calling its "skinny budget" -- a broad outline of the detailed 2018 fiscal proposal due from the administration later this spring -- seeks an overall cut of 13 percent of the Department of Education's funding from the current year. To offset steep proposed increases in military spending, the budget blueprint seeks $54 billion in cuts across the board to nondefense spending.

Trump wrote in his budget message that the administration's blueprint makes tough choices to reinvest in the country's military without adding to the federal deficit. "In these dangerous times, this public safety and national security budget is a message to the world -- a message of American strength, security and resolve," he said.

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Higher education aid programs absorbed much of the brunt of those cuts to education funding. The proposed budget must be approved by Congress and possibly may not be passed in any form resembling the outline submitted by the administration. But it serves as a guide to the White House's priorities.

The budget preserves current levels of funding for the federal Pell Grant program by taking $3.9 billion from the program's $10.6 billion surplus -- a cushion that advocates had hoped to see preserved, if not used to strengthen the grant or restore year-round Pell.

It eliminates entirely support for the SEOG program -- which serves students with household incomes similar to Pell recipients -- while calling for "drastic" cuts to the Federal Work-Study program.

The proposal also seeks heavy cuts to two other college-access programs that direct funding to institutions and nonprofit organizations that help low-income students prepare for and enroll in college. The TRIO program would be allocated $808 million, a 10 percent cut from current funding levels. The GEAR UP program's annual budget would be reduced by a third in the proposed budget, to $219 million. GEAR UP's 2018 funding would also exclude any new grant awards to local partners.

"This is a budget that beats plowshares into swords," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education. "It very clearly moves money from the domestic agencies into the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security."

Representatives of college and university groups as well as college-access advocates focused much of their ire on the cuts to Pell, saying the program would be worse off the next time it experiences serious demand.

"Taking money out of a discretionary program that operates like an entitlement program is never a good idea," said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

The budget document doesn't specify whether the White House will propose maintaining the maximum yearly Pell Grant at $5,920. While advocates have called for increasing the maximum value of the grant to improve the purchasing power of low-income students, overall demand for the grants has slackened recently as the economy has improved and fewer individuals have returned to college. But funding for the program doesn't automatically rise with demand.

"If we get a recession and demand for the Pell Grant spikes, we're going to get a shortfall really fast," said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

President Trump and congressional Republicans garnered headlines and praise recently from some leaders of minority-serving institutions for meeting with presidents of historically black colleges and universities in Washington. But the new executive order on the White House HBCU initiative signed by the president last month did little more than move the initiative from the Department of Education into the White House. And the budget plan doesn't include new money for HBCUs or deliver on Pell increases sought by the leaders of those institutions.

The budget proposes holding Title III and Title V support for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions steady at $492 million, although an analysis from New America found that's a drop-off of $85 million from current funding levels.

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and a key player in discussions between the White House and HBCU representatives, said despite criticism of those meetings from corners of historically black colleges, they were justified. While money was taken from the Pell surplus, Taylor argued that in the context of a 13 percent reduction for the department, the Pell Grant proposal could have been much worse.

"I would make the case that the meeting with the White House was important, because if we hadn't gotten a commitment from the president advocating for HBCUs, we could have seen cuts to our Title III funding," he said.

The budget proposal said that funding to TRIO programs would be cut "in areas that have limited evidence on the overall effectiveness in improving student outcomes." Exactly where those cuts would occur won't be known until the full budget proposal is released in the spring. But Taylor said he is confident in the case to be made for the effectiveness of TRIO programs serving students at HBCU campuses.

"If they are objectively not working and you can't measure their success, then that's fair game," he said.

Alma Adams, co-chair of the congressional Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, said claims from the White House that the Trump administration would prioritize support for historically black colleges "ring hollow" after the release of the budget outline.

Other key Democrats in Congress blasted the proposal for breaking promises to workers and the middle class.

"Deep cuts to funding and eligibility for campus-based aid, college access programs, and a significant raid of Pell Grant funds would harm low- and middle-income families and their ability to access and succeed in higher education," said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate education committee. "I will continue to fight to protect students' access to affordable higher education, and I hope Republicans join me and reject this anti-education Trump budget."

Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the proposal would "endanger public education, make college less affordable and reduce the availability of work force training."

Some Republicans cautioned that Congress, not the president, has ultimate authority to enact appropriations bills, while generally holding back on offering criticism of the budget outline. But Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, warned that the federal budget won't be balanced with cuts to discretionary spending.

"Runaway entitlement spending -- more than 60 percent of spending -- is the real cause of the $20 trillion federal debt," Alexander said.

North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the House education committee, said the document shows that Trump plans to deliver on his promise "to begin getting our nation's fiscal house in order."

"No one will agree with every proposal outlined in this budget, and it is up to Congress to carefully review the details," Foxx said in a statement. "That is precisely what we will do in the coming weeks. We look forward to working with the president to implement fiscally responsible policies that promote economic prosperity, keep workers safe and help ensure all Americans have access to an excellent education."

The White House blueprint isn't a binding document or even a guide to what Congress might do in the appropriations process. But Draeger, of NASFAA, said it couldn't simply be dismissed out of hand.

"The administration has offered up a menu of acceptable cuts to Congress," he said.

The proposed cuts affecting higher education go far beyond the Department of Education. The budget proposal zeroes out funding entirely for multiple programs involving the arts and research across several federal agencies. It would eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

As expected, the White House is seeking to eliminate funding for the National Sea Grant College Program, a network of 33 college and university programs conducting research and focusing on conservation to serve the needs of local communities and industries. The proposed Sea Grant cuts come amid major reductions in other environmental programs. The Environmental Protection Agency's budget would be slashed by 31 percent -- more than the reductions sought in any other federal agency.

And the skinny budget seeks a 20 percent overall cut to the National Institutes of Health. University groups say those cuts would damage the research mission of universities.

"It puts us a step back instead of moving our country forward in ensuring we will be at the forefront of the next big discoveries," said Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of congressional and government affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "This budget would nearly ensure an innovation deficit."

Supporters of higher ed funding said now much of the action on the budget will shift to Capitol Hill, even as universities and other observers await the full White House budget in the spring.

Former Education Secretary John B. King Jr. called on Congress to reject the administration's proposal outright.

"If this proposal were enacted, all students, particularly students of color and low-income students, throughout the entire continuum of our education system would suffer, as would the nation's businesses, who desperately need a skilled work force to be successful," said King, who joined the Education Trust last month as its president and CEO.

Hartle, of the American Council on Education, said the proposal is the start of a long and complicated process for passage of a budget.

"Do we like what's in here? No," Hartle said. "Is this going to be the last word? Absolutely not."

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