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illustration showing stacks of cash on a map of the United States with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

Higher education continues to be a top beneficiary of congressionally directed spending, projects commonly referred to as earmarks.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress | Richard Darko/iStock/Getty Images

From protecting reefs and fighting climate change to purchasing a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, projects for colleges and universities funded in the latest federal budget run a wide gamut.

Colleges and universities are planning to put more than $1.3 billion to work on one-time purchases of equipment such as the University of Nevada at Reno’s $2.4 million spectrometer or, in other cases, to start new academic programs that administrators say will address critical needs in their communities. The largest chunk of the money—more than half of the money—will go to university hospitals, healthcare programs, science and research.

Congress is funding 707 projects over all, with price tags ranging from $20,000 to $36 million, through earmarks in the fiscal year 2024 budget that passed last month. The money will go to 483 institutions and foundations that support them. Inside Higher Ed's data analysis shows how colleges and universities turn to this pot of federal money to fund projects of various shapes and sizes.

Colleges received less total funding via earmarks this year than in the fiscal year 2023 budget, when a handful of retiring senators sent many millions back home to their local colleges and universities. Still, the infusion of money offers a boost at a time when other resources are stretched thin for many institutions.

John McAllister, a managing partner at McAllister & Quinn, a consulting firm that works with colleges on their earmark requests, said they are a great way for institutions to fund technology, equipment, research, academic programming and economic development initiatives. “If you are a college president and you are looking for a creative way to fund an important project on your campus, you should definitely be engaged in this process,” he said.

But earmarking has long been controversial. When the practice returned to Congress in 2021 after a decade-long moratorium, it was renamed as “congressionally directed spending” in the Senate and “community project funding” in the House. The money is doled out at the discretion of lawmakers for specific projects in their home states or districts. Along with conservative lawmakers, some higher ed groups have opposed earmarks in the past, arguing they led to corruption and wasteful spending, and lacked transparency to boot. The Association of American Universities has said that earmarks reduce the quality of federally funded research because the projects aren’t subject to the same peer-review process as others the government funds.

When earmarks came back, congressional leaders capped the amount for projects at 1 percent of total discretionary spending and added new guardrails, including a requirement that lawmakers post their requests online and certify that they have no financial interest in the project. For-profit entities were also barred from receiving earmarks. Despite those changes, the process of how appropriators decide which projects to support remains opaque.

Higher education has taken advantage of the funding stream, receiving more than $1 billion in the last two federal budgets. The benefits of that money are felt unequally across the industry and country, though.

Most colleges on the list had just one project funded. Others, like the University of Maine system, received much more. The system was the top beneficiary of earmarks—as it was in 2023—and is set to get $56.6 million for 18 projects, according to our analysis.

Maine wasn’t the only winner in this budget. Here are some key takeaways and highlights from this round of earmarks.

Arkansas Colleges Score Big

Thanks to earmarks secured by GOP Senator John Boozman, Arkansas colleges and universities will have the money to build new facilities for healthcare programs, research steel manufacturing and work to reduce infant mortality and address youth drug use. Over all, 10 Arkansas colleges and universities received $106 million across 15 projects, the most of any state—and up from $26 million in 2023.

Boozman said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed that supporting these projects “made sense for many reasons” and that “this funding will improve health care and access to skilled jobs.”

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences received the largest haul, at $21 million. Lyon College in Batesville, a liberal arts institution with fewer than 1,000 students, is planning to put the $15 million it received toward creating a school of oral health and dental medicine, which will help address a shortage of dental professionals in the state. Arkansas is among the lowest-ranked states in terms of the number of dentists per capita, with just 42 per 100,000 residents.

Lyon, which is also developing the state’s first veterinary medicine school, plans to admit students for the graduate dental program in fall 2025. Its president, Melissa Taverner, said in a news release that the federal funding is a “game-changer” for the college.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, which has more than 2,380 students, is also receiving $15 million, which will go toward the construction of a new nursing school. Elsewhere in the state, the University of Arkansas at Rich Mountain, a small community college, will get $12 million to build an allied health building, which will help it expand programming for nursing and other healthcare fields.

Kansas, Mississippi, West Virginia and South Carolina rounded out the top five states that received the most in project funding. Together, these states accounted for 35 percent of the total Congress allocated to colleges and foundations that support them.

With 47, Mississippi had the largest number of projects funded, totaling $92.38 million. The average project count for states was 15, while the average amount awarded by state was $28.6 million. Colleges and universities in four states—Indiana, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming—received no funding.

Kickstarting Prison Education Programs

Some colleges turned to the earmark process to secure funding to expand their prison education programs.

The federal government reinstated access to the Pell Grant for students who are incarcerated last summer. However, progress on starting or expanding access to college programs behind bars has lagged. Some colleges have opted to roll back their offerings because they don’t have the resources to comply with federal rules.

But five colleges are receiving $8.95 million total for prison education programs. That includes $4.5 million for Bard College, $1.6 million for Morehouse College, $1.5 million for Chaminade University in Hawaii, $963,000 for Georgetown University, and $355,000 for Goucher College.

Chaminade University is planning to expand its prison-education program to include incarcerated women and a Bachelor of Arts track, according to its request.

High Fliers: The Biggest Project Winners

The most expensive of the higher-ed earmarks went to the University of Oklahoma, which secured $36.5 million to expand the runway at its Max Westheimer Airport. Nationally, the average project cost about $1.89 million.

Republican representative Tom Cole, a senior appropriator in the House, said in his funding request that the regional airport in Norman has seen an increase in private jets, specifically Gulfstream Vs. However, he said, those jets can’t land at the airport regularly because of the runway’s size. Now the university, which owns the airport, is planning to extend the runway by more than 1,500 feet to accommodate the private jets, while also building a hangar.

It’s the largest of a number of big projects devoted to university-owned airports and aviation. Second among the top five projects is another one: $28 million for a new Aerospace Innovation and Training Hub at Kansas State University at Salina. Senator Jerry Moran, a Republican, secured $33.5 million for the university to build and equip the facility, which will house programs in unmanned aerial systems and aviation maintenance and grow the university’s pilot-training program.

“I have a dream for this state,” Moran said at a campus event last week where he announced the funding. “I want Kansas to be a place where our students, our kids who are interested in science, in mathematics, engineering and research have a place to be educated and, ultimately, a place to have a career and raise their families.”

The University of Nebraska Lincoln received $25 million toward the construction of an Agricultural Research Service facility that will house the USDA’s National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture.

Rounding out the top five projects are the $15 million for Lyon College’s dental school and $15 million to the Marshall University Research Corporation to build a community health institute.

Small-Dollar Projects Outnumber Big-Ticket Items

Although the larger items in the federal budget tend to attract more fanfare, slightly more than half of the higher-ed projects cost $1 million or less.

McAllister said those earmarks might seem small to a broader audience, but they can be a very important project to a campus.

One example might be the least-expensive earmark of the year: $20,000 to provide training courses for part-time law enforcement at Copiah Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. Similar small-dollar earmarks went toward campus equipment purchases, along with projects to develop local workforces and bolster public safety on college campuses, to name a few.

Among the 707 federally funded projects, the median amount was $1 million, while the average was $1.8 million.

In Michigan, Delta College received $284,000 to develop programs for semiconductor production and research—key to its goal of becoming a leading educational institution in semiconductor programming.

Meanwhile, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs received $374,000 for its hybrid physical therapy program, which lawmakers said would “expand academic and clinical training opportunities to students around the state, especially in rural communities.”

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