While a newly approved bill will stop a federal government shutdown for at least two weeks, the legislation comes at a price – terminating a long-standing $64 million student financial aid program.
The bill terminates Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnerships (LEAP), an incentive fund that encourages states to offer their own need-based student financial assistance. The LEAP initiative “generated about $1 billion in state student aid with that incentive investment,” said Rich Williams, a higher education advocate at US PIRG.
Past and current presidents – including President Obama – have proposed eliminating the program as a budget savings, noting that, after many years, LEAP has institutionalized state aid programs and served its purpose. But Congress always saw fit to continue the program, until now.
In recent days, higher education advocates had urged Congress to continue its long-standing commitment to the program.
“At a time when the federal government is seeking to do more with less, eliminating the LEAP Program is particularly shortsighted,” said a letter signed by Mary Corbett Broad and David Warren, co-presidents of the Student Aid Alliance. Broad is president of the American Council on Education and Warren is president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
The $1 billion in state student aid generated through LEAP provides about $1,700 per needy student, or “the difference between earning a degree and dropping out of college for the over 80 percent of LEAP families earning less than $40,000 a year,” they wrote.
“If our economy is to recover and thrive again, we will need precisely the kind of skilled workers the LEAP Program has produced.”
Given that Congress was the entity to save the program in the past, LEAP is an unlikely candidate for revival after lawmakers voted for termination, advocates said.
Overall, the new two-week budget bill terminates more than a dozen federal education programs. In addition to LEAP, another program eliminated is the Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational Opportunity Program. Funded at $3 million a year, the program provides “low-income, minority, or disadvantaged secondary school students and college students with the information, preparation and financial assistance needed to gain access to and to complete law school study,” according to the U.S. Education Department’s website for the program.
Funds can support pre-college programs, undergraduate pre-law programs, information and counseling, tutoring services; a six-week summer law institute; mid-year seminars and other educational activities.
Other program eliminations include $24 million for Reading is Fundamental, $18 million for Teach for America and $40 million for arts in education programs. Some federal literacy programs also would see their funds reduced.
Williams said small programs are ideal targets for budget cutters since they can tout progress in reducing spending at a relatively low cost. Lawmakers can “show how many programs they’ve cut,” even if the programs do not total a large sum of federal dollars.
Budget cuts remain on the minds of many education advocates both in Washington, D.C., and states. On Thursday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan met with reporters to discuss guidance he has offered states on how to use federal education funding flexibly during the recession.
“Governments at every level face a critical need to cut spending where we can in order to invest where we must,” Duncan said. Calling the current environment “the new normal,” he urged states not to lay off effective teachers and to explore innovative approaches such as transferring money between programs where possible and combining funds in small rural districts.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to cut spending,” he noted, adding that the overarching goal is to “minimize negative impact on students.”