WASHINGTON -- The only real question is: Deep or much deeper?
As President Obama prepares to issue his 2012 budget blueprint today -- which administration officials acknowledge will include meaningful cuts for some key higher education programs -- House Republicans released legislation  Friday that would slash federal spending for colleges and students much more sharply than the president and Democratic-controlled Senate are likely to find acceptable.
The distance between their positions on spending for higher education and similar debates over many other parts of the government could, at its worst, lead to a shutdown of the federal government between now and March 4, when the current continuing resolution to fund federal operations for 2011 expires. If Congress does not pass and the president does not sign new legislation by then, the government would shut down.
That's a prospect that neither President Obama nor the Congressional Republican leadership seems to enjoy -- but that the GOP's charged-up Tea Party members (who are pushing hard for the deepest possible cuts) might relish.
President Obama has promised to privilege, if not entirely protect, education and research even as his administration accepts the reality that the government must rein in spending to reduce its budget deficit. News reports Sunday said that the president would propose a budget Monday that would cut spending by $1.1 trillion over a decade.
Although details on specific programs were few and far between, the news reports indicated that education and research programs would gain, on average, as the president seeks to ensure that, as he said in his State of the Union address, the country invests in its ability to "win the future."
But the Associated Press reported -- and administration officials confirmed -- that to keep the maximum Pell Grant at its current level of $5,550 for 2012, the president's budget plan would call for reversing the 2008 change that allowed students to get multiple Pell Grants in a single year and for eliminating the benefit in which the government pays the interest costs on student loans for graduate students while they are in school.
“We’re making some tough choices to protect the Pell Grant," said Justin Hamilton, press secretary for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "Our proposal would guarantee the maximum award of $5,550 by making some strategic reductions in other areas. We’re cutting where we can so that we can invest where we must.” Without these steps, he said, the maximum Pell Grant could decline by $2,500 "at a time when the cost of college is skyrocketing. That is financially unworkable and morally unacceptable."
Administration officials drew a sharp contrast between their approach to higher education funding and that of House Republican leaders in the continuing resolution they released Friday to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year.
In that legislation, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee -- under pressure from budget hawks in their own party to cut more deeply into the federal deficit -- revised a plan  from earlier last week  that would have largely protected Pell Grants and several other federal programs important to higher education.
The continuing resolution legislation would cut more than $100 billion over all, almost entirely from non-discretionary domestic programs that make up about 15 percent of the overall federal budget. About 40 percent of the cuts would come from the sections of the discretionary budget that include health, education and labor programs. The measure would:
- Cut the maximum Pell Grant by $845, to $4,705, and eliminate the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Programs, which also help institutions and states provide need-based financial assistance. The Pell Grant cut would affect about 8 million students, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.
- Slash deeply from several science agencies: nearly $900 million from the 2010 budget level for the Energy Department's Office of Science, and about $350 million from the National Science Foundation. The legislation would also cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget of the National Institutes of Health.
- Severely reduce (by 78 percent) funding for Hispanic-serving colleges and completely eliminate federal support for several other programs for minority-serving colleges, including tribal colleges and institutions that serve significant numbers of black and Asian-American students. The key Education Department program for historically black colleges and universities would lose $85 million of the $266 million it received in 2010, or about a third.
- Eliminate $103 million for the Tech-Prep Program  for vocational education, which heavily benefits community colleges. (President Obama's 2011 budget proposed ending the separate stream of funds directly for Tech-Prep but would have shifted the $103 million the program received in 2010 into the larger state grants program under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.)
- Wipe out all operating funds for the AmeriCorps national service program for students. It is not clear from committee documents what would happen to the program's operation this year.
- Gut funding for the creation and support of statewide education data systems.
- Eliminate all Congressional earmarks for individual institutions, which in 2010 totaled almost $2 billion for colleges and universities .
Advocates for students drew attention to the differing approaches the administration and House leaders were poised to take. After praising President Obama for his "commitment to maintaining this crucial investment in our nation’s economic recovery and keeping the maximum Pell Grant at the current level of $5,550," Lauren Asher of the Institute for College Access and Success said that the House's plan to cut the grants would "pull the rug right out from under students and families who are counting on these crucial grants to help pay for college this fall.
"Most Pell Grant recipients have family incomes under $50,000 and already have to borrow more than other students to complete college. We urge Congress in the strongest possible terms not to cut the maximum Pell Grant, and to preserve this lifeline to opportunity and economic prosperity.”
House members also plan to add to the continuing resolution legislation language that would block the Education Department from carrying out its proposed regulations requiring vocational programs (and all programs at for-profit colleges) to ensure that they prepare students for "gainful employment."
A memo sent over the weekend by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities described the proposed amendment as a "watershed moment in the sector’s year-long fight against gainful employment.... We need the sector to show unity and focus on this campaign over the next 72 hours if we have a chance of the United States House of Representatives passing this amendment."
Some Programs House Would Cut Outright (and Current 2011 Appropriation):
- Tech Prep State Grants ($102.9 million)
- Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants ($757.5 million)
- Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships ($63.9 million)
- Strengthening Predominantly Black Institutions ($10.8 million)
- Strengthening Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions ($15.1 million)
- Strengthening Asian American- and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions ($3.6 million)
- Strengthening Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities ($30.2 million)
- Strengthening Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions ($3.6 million)
- Demonstration Projects to Ensure Students With Disabilities Receive a Quality Higher Education  ($6.8 million)
- Byrd Honors Scholarships ($42 million)