The Capitol in March. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

 

A House subcommittee on Thursday blocked a Senate effort to provide low-income college students federal Pell grants to take classes throughout the year and instead approved an appropriations bill that would cut $1.3 billion out of the program.

The vote in the House Appropriations subcommittee arrives a month after its Senate counterpart passed bipartisan legislation that authorized full-time students who qualify for Pell to receive the grants three semesters a year instead of two. Proponents say the expansion would help students afford to take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of student debt.

The prospects of beefing up the $30 billion program in a Republican-controlled Congress looked dim until March, when the Congressional Budget Office projected a $7.8 billion surplus in funding for Pell.

With that money, the Senate subcommittee agreed to provide students up to 150 percent of their current Pell award, which could have amounted to an additional $1,650 on average. Senators also planned to maintain $22.5 billion in discretionary spending for Pell in fiscal year 2017 and increase the maximum award by $120 to $5,935 for an estimated 8 million recipients.

Still, at least $1.2 billion of the surplus would go toward funding the National Institutes of Health and other initiatives. Members of the House took the proposed redirection of the surplus funds a step further by upping the number to $1.3 billion.

Although the House bill gets rid of the year-round Pell proposal, it does increase the maximum award to nearly $6,000. The House measure also bumps up funding for the federal Work-Study program by $27 million.

The full House Appropriations Committee is slated to take up the bill next week, but there is a good chance that the legislation will stall as Congress tries to get through other spending bills before the end of the year. Still, Congress could take another swipe at Pell as part of a broader year-end spending package. It is also possible that the restoration of year-round Pell could emerge during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, likely to get underway next year.

Earlier this week, a group of 120 House Democrats, led by Reps. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), sent a letter to the committee imploring members not to divert any of the Pell surplus, arguing it could encourage future disinvestment in the program.

“Rescissions, cancellations, or funding level cuts will worsen the funding outlook for Pell Grants and make it harder to strengthen the program through reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which Congress is expected to tackle in the coming months and years,” lawmakers wrote. “Any current surplus balance reflects Congress’ intent and commitment to make college more affordable for millions of students through updating the Pell Grant program.”

Even with the proposed increase to the maximum Pell award, it will cover less than 30 percent of what it costs to attend a public four-year college, the smallest share in more than 40 years, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. After taking grants, scholarships and tax credits into account, one year at a four-year public university, including tuition, fees, and room and board, cost an average $14,120 for a full-time, in-state student in 2015-2016, according to the College Board. At private nonprofit colleges, the average net price is almost double, at $26,400.

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