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Pell Grant Increase Considered

U.S. House Republican leaders are proposing a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant next year, a move that may pave the way for the first increase in program funding since 2003.

The measure, approved by a House appropriations subcommittee, also would protect Talent Search, Upward Bound and GEAR UP from cuts or elimination. All three would receive continued funding in fiscal year 2007 even though the Bush administration had called for termination of the programs.

In a tight budget environment, at least one higher education leader found some reason for optimism.

“It’s a lot better than some would expect under the circumstances,” says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

A $100 increase is still “inadequate” given recent tuition and financial aid trends, he says. But since the top grant for needy students has not increased in four years, “It’s something to appreciate.”

In recent years, most education advocates had looked to the U.S. Senate — not the more conservative House — to lead the way on efforts to increase spending.

If both houses of Congress ultimately approve the plan, the maximum grant would increase to $4,150 next year. The Senate has not yet presented its education spending bill for next year; the White House proposed no increase in its budget plan last winter.

The House education appropriations subcommittee approved the plan by a 9-7 vote, with most Democrats opposing the bill. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., senior Democrat on the panel, said in a statement that the measure still falls far short of what’s needed.

While tuition at four-year public colleges has increased more than 40 percent since 2001, the Pell Grant has received only a few tiny increases.

According to Obey, lawmakers would have to raise the top grant by $1,650 to restore Pell’s purchasing power when President Bush took office.

For students of color and first-generation college students, the House decision on GEAR UP and TRIO programs such as Talent Search and Upward Bound could ensure that college access services continue uninterrupted.

Overall, TRIO programs would receive $828 million under the House bill, unchanged from current funding. The White House called for a cut of more than $400 million, with a goal of eventually terminating Talent Search and Upward Bound.

While TRIO advocates mounted their own campaign to protect the programs, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., a Congressional Black Caucus member, actively sought a $100 million increase rather than a cut.

Elimination of Talent Search and Upward Bound “would not only deny thousands of students the necessary support in enrolling in college, it would widen the gap between low-income, first-generation students and their peers,” Payne says.

By protecting GEAR UP, the House would maintain funding of $303 million for this program that helps middle and high school students prepare for college.

Elsewhere, the House’s 2007 education bill has few increases. Support for historically Black colleges and universities would be frozen at $238 million. Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges also would see their budgets frozen at $95 million and $23.5 million, respectively.

The bill now goes to the full House Appropriations Committee for action next week, a House aide says. GOP leaders hope to send a final bill to the White House before the start of the new fiscal year Oct. 1. In recent years, lawmakers have missed that deadline, relying on short-term stopgap measures until they could resolve differences.

Nassirian says he is “guardedly optimistic” that Congress ultimately will approve a 2007 budget that provides a Pell increase without cutting other programs. But the budget’s bottom line still falls short of expectations. “It’s a tough bill,” he says.

— By Charles Dervarics

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