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After Delays, Congress Wraps Up Budget Bill

After Delays, Congress Wraps Up Budget Bill
Minority-serving colleges gain small increases

By Charles Dervarics

College access programs and minority-serving colleges would gain small increases while Pell Grants may face more uncertainty under a long-awaited 2005 education budget bill that will become law soon.

Part of a $388-billion omnibus spending bill for more than a dozen federal agencies, the plan keeps overall spending increases to a minimum due to an increasing federal budget deficit. One of the few large increases is 8 percent for the main historically Black college and university program, which would grow to $240 million next year. HBCU graduate institutions would get a 10 percent increase, to $58.5 million.

College access programs such as GEAR UP and TRIO would receive increases of about $10 million. That represents a gain of nearly 4 percent for GEAR UP and about 1.3 percent for Talent Search and other TRIO programs.

“This a lean and clean package that adheres to the budgetary limits agreed to by Congress and the president,” said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee that writes spending bills.

But student aid programs would see little or no gain. The maximum Pell Grant would remain at $4,050, after education groups fought for a moderate increase due to increased demand for the program. While the top grant for the neediest students would remain the same, Congress will increase the overall Pell budget by 3 percent to help address shortfalls in the program due to heavy demand.

However, critics complained that students still might face cutbacks. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the bill would give the Education Department authority to change the formula used to calculate student eligibility for assistance. He said the department can use that power to reduce benefits.

“In one of its first actions after the elections, Congress has cut student aid even though college tuition costs are as expensive as they’ve ever been,” he said. Miller claimed that more than 80,000 students may lose Pell Grants entirely while one million may see their grant or loan benefits reduced because of changes in the aid calculation formula.

Republicans denied the claim. “The Democrats are desperate for some way to paint the administration as cutting Pell Grants,” said Dave Schnittger, a spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

He told Black Issues the bill simply allows the Education Department to adjust the process of how the government considers state and local taxes in determining a family’s eligibility for aid. The rules have not been updated since 1988, he said.

Rather than deny aid to needy youth, Schnittger said, the Education Department may make changes that better target funds to the most disadvantaged students. He added that it is “absurd” to think government still is awarding aid in the best way possible when using tax tables that are more than 15 years old.

Miller had asked for a one-year delay in the process since Congress is expected to address the eligibility issue in its long-planned reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Democrats and some Republicans had asked for a similar one-year delay in 2003, and congressional leaders honored that request.

Aside from the eligibility issue, some education advocates privately expressed disappointment that the bill did not do more to address the mounting Pell Grant shortfall, estimated at up to $4 billion. The new budget bill has about $300 million to help address the problem, caused by heavier-than-expected demand for aid from families and students.

Most education programs also will be subject to a small across-the-board cut of less than 1 percent to help meet budget targets. Government-wide, only defense and homeland security programs are exempt from these reductions.

Elsewhere, the bill would provide an extra $9 million for Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, for $778 million next year. College work/study would remain unchanged at $998 million. Here is a look at how the bill would affect other programs:

• Hispanic-serving institutions: $95.1 million, a 2 percent increase from current funding;

• Title I education grants: $12.8 billion, up $500 million, or 2 percent;

• Carl Perkins Act: Basic state grants would receive $1.19 billion, a slight decrease after factoring in the across-the-board cut;

• Howard University: $240 million, a small increase from current funding;

• Tribal colleges: $24 million, a slight increase;

• Campus child care: $16 million, same as current funding;

• Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships: $66 million, same as current funding, for a program that President Bush had earmarked for elimination; and

• Head Start: $6.9 billion, an increase of $70 million after factoring in across-the-board cuts.

The bill supports programs for the government’s new fiscal year that began Oct. 1. For the past two months, programs had been operating with only temporary funding.

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