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Congressional budget deal wards off Trump’s wish list of higher-education cuts

The Capitol dome in Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

A bipartisan bill to fund the government through the end of September protects higher-education programs that are under threat from the 2018 White House budget proposal, setting the stage for a fight over appropriations before the end of the year.

Congress reaches deal to keep government open through September

The congressional budget agreement reached Sunday pares back total federal spending on education by $60 million, but upholds or increases funding for a series of higher-education programs aimed at low-income students. Though the agreement, which Congress will vote on early this week, only addresses appropriations for the next few months, it signals that lawmakers are unlikely to rubber-stamp the president’s deep budget cuts for fiscal 2018.

“This agreement is at once a confirmation of the institutional supremacy of Congress on budgetary issues and a serious bipartisan pushback against the administration’s rather extreme proposals,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “I can only assume that the 2018 budget will be similarly mainstream and constructive.”

The budget deal expands the Pell Grant program for low-income college students by offering up to $2,960 — half of the maximum award — to recipients taking summer courses during the 2017-2018 academic year. That way, students can take a full load of courses year-round, earn a degree faster and avoid taking on a lot of student debt. An estimated 1 million students could benefit from an average of $1,650 in additional money.

In the lead-up to the White House budget release, lawmakers and higher-education advocates had hoped the Trump administration would set aside funding to help students take summer classes. Instead the White House budget maintains the current funding level for Pell grants and calls for the “cancellation” of $3.9 billion in the program’s reserves, money that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said should be used to provide grants for three semesters, instead of two. Trump proposed taking an additional $1.3 billion out of the reserve weeks after releasing his budget.

To be sure, the congressional budget agreement would take that $1.3 billion out of the Pell reserves, leaving about $9.3 billion in the coffers. But the bill ups the maximum award amount by $105 to $5,920, rather than maintain level funding as the Trump administration plans.

“This deal gives with one hand and takes with the other,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), an education nonprofit. “When I look at the big picture, it’s sending a mixed message about the importance of college affordability. It restores needed aid, but raids money from the program.”

It looks as if the government can afford to revive year-round grants for needy college students

Congress has long been at odds over expanding Pell. Former president Barack Obama doubled Pell funding in 2010 through savings eked out of reforms to the federal student loan system, but congressional budget agreements the following years cut the benefits by not allowing the grants to be used toward summer courses. Providing year-round grants was far more costly than anticipated as college enrollment soared during the recession.

With fewer people pursuing postsecondary degrees and billions of dollars in reserves, supporters of restoring year-round Pell say the program is unlikely to run into the same problems as before. Last summer, Senate Democrats and Republicans hammered out a deal to restore year-round Pell grants, but House Republicans shot down the agreement, saying it was too expensive. Since then, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has thrown support behind an expansion, as has Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Sunday’s budget deal also increases funding for two college preparation programs, TRIO and GEAR UP, that the Trump administration has earmarked for millions of dollars in cuts. Congress has agreed to up the budget for TRIO by $50 million, while pouring an additional $17 million into GEAR UP. Lawmakers are directing the Education Department to increase the number of new TRIO grants awarded this year and give applicants who were disqualified due to formatting errors a reprieve. The department recently rejected dozens of grant applications for using the wrong font or failing to double space.

College-prep programs for the poor slashed in Trump’s budget

Pumping more money into the programs is a stark contrast from the combined $193 million cut proposed by Trump in March. At the time, the White House budget said, without any details, the TRIO cuts would only affect “areas that have limited evidence on the overall effectiveness in improving student outcomes.” It also said GEAR UP money could only be used for existing grants, even though the department is in the midst of selecting new recipients. Continued funding for that program would be conditioned on the completion of a “rigorous evaluation” of the program. The college prep programs have been criticized for being redundant and ineffective, but supporters say they play a key role in college access for some of the neediest students.

TRIO, named for three initiatives that date to the 1960s, houses programs such as Upward Bound, Talent Search and Student Support Services that aid high school students in getting into college or keeping them on track once they enroll. GEAR UP (the acronym stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) serves entire classes of children in high-poverty districts through grants to states and community partnerships.

Trump seeks to slash Education Department but make big push for school choice

TRIO and GEAR UP are among several higher-education programs at risk of losing funding under Trump’s 2018 budget. Federal work-study funds that help students work their way through college would be reduced “significantly,” the budget proposal says, while the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, a $732 million program that provided aid to 1.6 million students in the 2014-15 academic year, is on the chopping block. Congress, however, has proposed maintaining level funding for all of those programs for the remainder of the fiscal year.

“Helping low- and lower-middle-income students go to college is clearly a priority in the fiscal 2017 budget, and I sure hope it stays that way for fiscal 2018,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education. Still, he said, “It’s dangerous to speculate about something that will happen a few months down the road because today’s political environment is fragile and fast-changing.”