The administration of President Trump is being criticized for proposing to divert $3.9 billion in federal student aid to fund other programs. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Trump administration faces sharp criticism over a budget request to divert $3.9 billion in federal student aid to pay for other programs, including a NASA initiative to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

Congressional Democrats and higher education advocates say the White House is jeopardizing the sustainability of the Pell Grant program, the primary source of federal grant aid for millions of students whose families typically earn less than $60,000 a year. The program is running an estimated $9 billion surplus that advocates say must be preserved to ward off potential funding cuts in the future.

“To cut the cornerstone federal investment in Americans’ human capital to pay for continued space exploration — an endeavor more reliant on the ongoing and long-term investment in a highly educated future workforce than almost any other — is the height of irony,” said Jessica Thompson, policy and planning director at the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group.

In a budget amendment sent to Congress this week, the White House asked lawmakers to pull out $1.9 billion in reserve funds from the Pell program on top of another $2 billion cut requested in the original fiscal 2020 budget. The administration said cuts to the surplus will have no immediate impact on Pell recipients and the program should have sufficient discretionary funds until 2023.

That expectation, however, is reliant on continued declines in participation in the Pell program. As the economy rebounded from the last major recession and the job market improved, fewer Pell-eligible students have enrolled in college, leading to a surplus of program funding. But that could change if the country suffers another economic downturn, said Jonathan S. Fansmith, director of government relations at the American Council on Education, which represents college and university presidents.

“You don’t have to go far back to see why this matters. In 2010, 2011 and 2012, Pell was running shortfalls because there were a lot of people impacted by the recession and returning to school,” he said. “We’re one economic downturn away from being in that situation again. The amount you can maintain for the overall funding is a bulwark against harming students.”

The purchasing power of the Pell Grant has waned in the face of rising college costs. Thompson noted that the maximum Pell Grant for the 2019-2020 academic year, ringing in at $6,195, will cover the lowest chunk of public college costs in history. Because the grant is no longer automatically adjusted to keep pace with inflation, the mismatch in need and award appears likely to grow.

In the last academic year, the U.S. Education Department said the $30 billion Pell program benefited more than 5.7 million college students. The federal agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the White House proposal.

Dipping into the reserve fund has become a perennial issue in Washington. The Trump administration has sought cuts to the Pell surplus in each of its budgets. Congress has siphoned off money from the reserve but to fund other higher education initiatives, such as offering Pell Grants year round instead of for two semesters.

Pell has benefited from bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and congressional leaders say there is no way lawmakers will reverse course to back Trump’s plans for NASA. Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), ranking Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said the budget amendment “will be dead on arrival in Congress.”

“Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been working together to increase the amount of money students can receive through Pell Grants — and if President Trump wants to invest in NASA, he should support bipartisan efforts to raise the spending caps to pay for it,” Murray said.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the subcommittee, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Trump’s proposal.

House lawmakers have made their position on Pell funding clear by refusing the White House’s initial request to take money from the reserve and by boosting the maximum award in an appropriations bill that passed last week.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services and education, echoed Murray’s sentiments that the White House budget amendment has no chance of clearing Congress.

“President Trump and his team should stop wasting their time on theatrics,” DeLauro said. “We passed a substantive . . . funding bill out of the Appropriations Committee last week — one that makes critical investments in low-income and first-generation students by increasing the maximum Pell Grant, federal work study, and other grant aid. I look forward to passing our bill out of the House in short order.”

Even if the Pell reserves remain intact this year, Fansmith worries that policymakers are looking at the program’s funding as a slush fund for other priorities.

“It sets a pretty troubling precedent about the idea that these are funds that can be allocated anywhere across the budget, even outside the appropriations bill which has authority over it,” Fansmith said.