Senate Panel Approves First Pell Increase Since 2010

A Senate panel has approved the first increase in the maximum Pell Grant in three years while providing level funding for minority-serving institutions in a tough budget environment.

The bill, endorsed by a party-line vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would increase the maximum Pell by $85 to $5,635. If approved by the full Congress and President Obama, the increase would be the first enacted by lawmakers since fiscal year 2010.

“At a time when budgets are tight and students and families across the nation are struggling, taxpayer dollars intended for higher education should be focused on helping low- and middle-income students pursue an academic degree,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee on education.

But the panel acknowledged that the move would have long-term implications, given heavy use of the program in the current economy combined with fiscal uncertainty in Washington. To help pay for the increase, senators would impose new rules on Pell Grant use in distance education programs and limit in-school loan interest subsidies to those who take a long time to complete degrees.

Members said such moves could sustain the increase next year, when lawmakers need an additional $6 billion to extend the initiative. “Ignoring this looming crisis would be irresponsible,” the panel said in a report accompanying the bill.

The measure also would provide level funding for programs aimed at historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. The move drew praise from the United Negro College Fund.

“In this climate, our goal is to hold on to level funding,” said Edith Bartley, UNCF government affairs director.

HBCUs would receive $312 million for the fiscal year beginning October 1, while HBCU graduate institutions would receive $59 million.

Other funding levels include $100 million for Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), $100 million for HSI math/science and articulation initiatives, $9 million for HSI graduate institutions, $55 million for tribal colleges and $24 million for predominantly Black institutions.

The panel did not fund President Obama’s request to provide $30 million in seed money for Augustus Hawkins Centers of Excellence, an initiative to enhance teacher education programs at minority-serving colleges. In their report, senators cited “budget constraints” as the reason they could not fund the program.

Bartley told Diverse that the MSI community had fought for the initiative, but she was not surprised at the result. “We were well aware that it might not get funded,” she said. Still, she noted that the community had raised awareness of the initiative, which was authorized — but not funded — back in 2008.

“There’s enough interest to get the program funded in the future,” she said.

The bill also would provide level funding for federal TRIO and GEAR UP programs at $840 million and $302 million, respectively.

The measure includes $40 million for the president’s proposed First in the World Initiative, a competitive grant program that encourages colleges to provide new ways to trim costs while promoting positive student outcomes. However, again citing budget constraints, the committee did not include plans for a $1-billion Race to the Top competition aimed at higher education innovation.

The Senate committee approved the bill in a party-line vote of 16 to 14. Republicans opposed the measure because of funding provided for sections of the health care law signed by Obama in 2010.

The House of Representatives has yet to move a fiscal 2013 education funding bill through committee, and it is unclear whether Congress could approve a final bill before October. Also looming on the horizon are automatic cuts for education programs that would take effect in January 2013 after a congressional supercommittee could not agree on a package of budget cuts and tax increases last November.

These cuts could reduce many education programs by about 9 percent.

“We’re very concerned about across-the-board cuts,” Bartley said. Since the reductions would affect both domestic and defense programs, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle may have an incentive for compromise. Still, she added, “It’s a tough climate.”