For higher education, Congress’ long-awaited omnibus 2008 spending bill is a decidedly mixed bag with a few victories and some unexpected setbacks.
The bill contains $145 billion for education, health and employment programs — $3 billion more than the president’s original request, but $5.6 billion less than the level in a plan vetoed by the White House in November. Unable to muster a two-thirds vote for a veto override, the Democrat-led House and Senate cut spending to make the bill more palatable to President Bush, who then signed the measure Dec. 26.
Typical of the mixed year-end result was funding for Pell Grants. To meet the new lower spending targets, the final budget bill cuts back the top grant from $4,310 to $4,241.
Yet, in classic Washington style, such a cut actually won’t take effect. That’s because Congress and the president last summer approved the College Cost Reduction Act, which has $18 billion in new spending separate from the budget bill. As a result, the maximum Pell Grant actually will increase to $4,731 next year.
Such budget moves allowed Congress to protect other higher education programs from cuts or outright elimination. For example, supplemental education grants to needy students would continue to receive funding, with a budget allotment of $757 million in fiscal 2008. President Bush had proposed terminating the program.
House and Senate members also were able to protect other smaller programs from elimination, including federal Perkins Loans and the Leveraging Educational Assistance Program (LEAP), through which states receive incentives to provide their own need-based aid.
“This bill is not perfect because of President Bush’s steadfast decision to veto appropriation bills that exceed his spending limits,” says Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. “However, the Democratic Congress was able to reverse the most severe of Bush’s proposed cuts.”
Other Democrats echo this view. “Had this Congress simply rubber-stamped President Bush’s budget, education funding would have been slashed by $1.2 billion, including a 50 percent cut in vocational education and the elimination of every student aid program except Pell Grants and work study,” says Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.
But the last-minute trimming had some negative effects. TRIO and GEAR UP no longer will receive the moderate increases included in the budget bill vetoed by the president. Instead, both programs are level funded at $828 million and $303 million, respectively.
However, the budget bill halts a controversial evaluation of Upward Bound, a TRIO program, according to the Council for Opportunity in Education, which monitors college-access programs. That evaluation had called for grantees to recruit twice as many students as needed so researchers could set up a control group of students who would receive no services.
Elsewhere, historically Black colleges were slated for a $5 million increase in Congress’ original budget bill but will get a funding freeze this year. HBCU graduate programs and support for Hispanic-serving institutions will drop slightly as a result of the late changes to the 2008 budget bill.
The government’s main HBCU program will receive $238 million this year, while HBCU graduate programs and HSIs will receive $57 million and $93 million, respectively.
Congress did reject the administration’s proposed $5 million, or 20 percent cut, in support for tribal colleges. The final budget bill earmarks $23 million, a decline of $400,000.
Howard University would receive $233 million, $4 million less than 2007 funding.
The final bill also would cut $11 million from career and technical education programs under the $1.1 billion Carl D. Perkins Act. These programs would have received a $25 million increase under the vetoed budget bill, reports the Association for Career and Technical Education.
The measure also contains nearly 9,000 special earmarks requested by lawmakers, at a cost of $7.4 billion, says Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a watchdog organization. For education, health and employment programs, the earmarks total $600 million. “While the number of projects has increased, the cost of projects has been reduced,” says Tom Schatz, CAGW president.
In education, earmarks in the bill include $82,000 to Morehouse College in Atlanta for a research initiative to improve the college graduation rate of minority students; $243,000 to Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, for a math/science initiative; $487,000 to Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., to create an osteopathic medical school; $87,000 to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania for technology upgrades; and $731,000 to Dillard University in New Orleans to recruit and train nursing assistants.
Despite signing the bill in late December, Bush criticized the earmarks. “These projects are not funded through a merit-based process and provide a vehicle for wasteful government spending,” he says.
The omnibus bill provides federal spending for education and other programs through Sept. 30, 2008.
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