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Budget, Grant Issues Still in Limbo

Budget, Grant Issues Still in Limbo
By Charles Dervarics

The U.S. Congress adjourned for the year without debating critical budget and student aid issues originally scheduled for approval in October.

Pell Grants, college work-study, TRIO programs and aid to HBCUs will continue to receive only temporary funding for fiscal 2003, which began in October, due to on-going budget debates in Congress. The new Congress, with Republicans in charge of both the Senate and House of Representatives, must take up these continuing funding issues soon after it convenes Jan. 7.

Earlier this year, a U.S. Senate panel approved a plan to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $100 and provide small gains for HBCU programs. However, the House soon became bogged down in a debate between moderates and conservatives on how to fund U.S. Department of Education programs.

Republican gains in the mid-term congressional elections may strengthen the hand of conservatives, according to higher education lobbyists. The Senate also will shift from Democratic to Republican control beginning in January.

The lack of consensus takes on added importance amid concerns of a rising shortfall in the Pell Grant program due to mounting student demand and the uneven economy. Congress last year plugged a $1 billion shortfall in the program and some analysts say another $1 billion may be needed to meet demands.

The Bush administration is likely to cover the shortfall by proposing future cuts elsewhere in education, a scenario that already is drawing concern from education lobbyists. Regardless of when Congress and the White House finalize the 2003 budget, the Bush administration is obligated to present a 2004 budget blueprint by early February. Congress also is scheduled to begin hearings on the operation of Pell and other Higher Education Act programs beginning early next year.

Lawmakers also adjourned in November without a long-term renewal of welfare reform legislation. That issue also became bogged down this year amid debate between those who favor more education options for welfare recipients and those favoring tougher work requirements in exchange for aid.

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