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Congress Considers Pell Grant Increase

Congress Considers Pell Grant Increase
First increase in years is possible because of House support.

By Charles Dervarics

For years, education advocates looked to a more moderate U.S. Senate to push for funding increases. But by beating them to the punch by proposing a $100 increase in the maximum Pell Grant next year, the usually conservative House of Representatives is making a rare statement about the need for increased higher education funding.

“It’s cause for at least a small celebration,” says Jennifer Pae, vice president of the U.S. Student Association. While the student group and other advocates openly called for a $450 increase in the maximum grant for needy students, budget constraints made that scenario virtually impossible. Advocates also had sought more money for Pell in each of the last four years, when the U.S. Congress and President Bush opted for no increase at all.

When the White House earlier this year sought to freeze the maximum grant at $4,050 again for 2007, prospects for an increase looked dim. But the recent action by the House education appropriations committee has breathed new life into the possibility of an increase. “It’s a step in the right direction,” Pae says.

In the economic slowdown that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, more needy students enrolled in college and the Pell program faced a huge funding shortfall because more students qualified for grants. Congress has since erased the $4 billion shortfall.

“With the Pell Grant shortfall eliminated … we have an opportunity to responsibly increase the maximum award,” says Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce’s subcommittee on 21st century competitiveness. “A college education is really a passport out of poverty, and raising the maximum Pell Grant award is an important step in making that dream a reality for millions of families.”

A $100 increase, bringing the maximum award to $4,150, is still “inadequate” given recent tuition and financial aid trends, says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But since the top grant for needy students has not increased in four years, he concedes, “It’s something to appreciate.”

The House education appropriations subcommittee earlier this month approved the plan by a 9-7 vote, with most Democrats opposing the bill. Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the senior Democrat on the panel, said in a statement that the measure still falls far short of need.

Tuition at four-year public colleges has increased on average more than 40 percent since 2001. Lawmakers also would have to raise the maximum grant by $1,650 to restore Pell’s purchasing power when Bush took office, Obey said.

For advocates, the House bill brought some other welcome news. The subcommittee voted to protect the Talent Search, Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs from cuts or elimination. The Bush administration had called for termination of all three programs, which are a part of the federal TRIO programs.

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 terminating Talent Search and Upward Bound, both college preparation programs.

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.

Under the House’s protection, GEAR UP, which helps middle and high school students prepare for college, would maintain its $303 million funding.

Pae says the programs are vital to improving higher education access for low-income students. “These programs target students from underserved communities, and they are important to break the cycle of poverty,” she says.

But the House spending bill has few increases for many programs important to minority students. 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 House would also protect career and technical education under the Carl D. Perkins Act. The White House had called for the termination of Perkins Act state grants, which flow to both K-12 and higher education.

The House rejected that recommendation, opting to continue the program at $1.2 billion, its current funding level.

GOP leaders hope to send a final bill to the White House before Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

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