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Despite Higher Pell Grant, Budget Has Few Other Increases

Despite Higher Pell Grant, Budget Has Few Other Increases
Tribal colleges to take a financial hit.

By Charles Dervarics

Despite proposing a large Pell Grant increase for next year, President Bush’s 2008 education budget falls short of goals set by higher education advocates on several fronts, including financial aid and help for minority-serving institutions.

The president’s budget for next year proposes a $550 increase in Pell Grants, bringing the top award to $4,600 — the first increase in nearly five years. “The president’s action will help make the dream of a college education the reality for more Americans,” Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in presenting the document.

If approved by Congress, Bush’s Pell proposal would surpass the $4,310 grant level proposed by Democratic congressional leaders for fall 2007.

But higher education groups are seeking a bigger increase for 2008 — all the way up to $5,100 next year. Obtaining that figure is the chief priority of the Student Aid Alliance, an umbrella group of leading higher education organizations including the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Education.

The Bush budget also would pay for its Pell increase by cutting other programs. High on the chopping block is the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, currently funded at $770 million. The program would be eliminated under the 2008 spending plan.

SEOG can provide an additional $4,000 to Pell-eligible students, and the Student Aid Alliance is campaigning to raise funding for that program to $1 billion.

But now advocates will have to go to Capitol Hill and fight just to keep the program alive.

The Education Department said SEOG has awarded funds “under an outdated statutory formula” that does not always reflect the greatest need. It also said SEOG funds would be better “redirected” to the Pell Grant.

Other aid programs slated for elimination include the campus-based Perkins Loan program and Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships, which provide states with financial incentives for funding their own need-based student aid programs.

These initiatives currently receive about $65 million each.

“Paying for the Pell increase by cutting other programs undermines the entire effort,” says Luke Swarthout, a higher education advocate at U.S. PIRG.

SEOG, in particular, serves a group of students similar to those who receive Pell, he adds. As a result, low-income students may not get as large an increase as they might expect under the proposed budget.

A new program created in 2006 would receive a substantial boost under the president’s plan. The White House is seeking an increase for Academic Competitiveness Grants, which reward college students who took a rigorous curriculum while in high school. Funding for this program would increase to almost $1.2 billion, from the current $850 million.

Unlike past budgets, the Bush education plan would not terminate college access programs such as Talent Search and Upward Bound, two federal TRIO programs. Budgets for TRIO and GEAR UP, another access program on last year’s budget hit list, would continue at current levels next year.

Bush’s recommendations and the higher education community’s goals also reflect the new atmosphere in the nation’s capital, where education groups are increasingly willing to ask the White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress for moderate to large funding increases.

The White House has also proposed level funding for historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions. HBCUs would receive $238 million from the main federal program plus $58 million for HBCU graduate institutions. HSIs would receive $95 million, far below the funding goals of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities for next year.

HACU is seeking a large increase to $175 million, plus a new $20 million program for HSIs with graduate programs, similar to the current graduate initiative for HBCUs.

But the administration would cut federal funding for tribal colleges next year from $23 million to $18 million. Officials say the lower level would be sufficient to support new development and construction efforts. The White House also would eliminate a $12 million aid program to colleges and universities with sizable numbers of Native Alaskas and Hawaiian students.

House and Senate committees soon will begin to hold hearings and debate the president’s spending plan. Education groups are pledging a full-court lobbying effort.

“More funding for low-income and minority students is long overdue,” says Jennifer Pae, president of the United States Students Association. A first-generation college student, Pae says she has more than $40,000 in student loan debt, a story increasingly common among students.
The student group has organized a 100-day agenda for higher education that began in January and will continue through May. To gain a stronger voice, USSA is asking students to collect and send postcards to Congress urging additional funding for student aid. The association also will lobby on Capitol Hill in early April.

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