• October 20, 2014

House Republicans Propose Freezing Pell Grants, Ending Support for Endowments

House Republicans offered their alternative to President Obama’s fiscal-2015 budget on Tuesday, proposing deep cuts in nondefense programs, including many of interest to higher education.

The spending blueprint, which aims to balance the budget in 10 years, would cut overall spending by $5.1-trillion over the next decade. While it stands no chance of passage in the Democratic-led Senate, the document reveals which programs the party will single out for cuts in the coming appropriations season.

Under the plan, which covers the fiscal year that begins on October 1, the maximum Pell Grant would be frozen at its current level for 10 years and would be financed with discretionary dollars only, rather than the current combination of mandatory and discretionary money. That change could make the program more vulnerable to future cuts, its advocates fear.

The plan would also roll back recent expansions of the program, eliminate eligibility for less-than-half-time students, and end administrative payments to participating colleges. It suggests adding a maximum-income cap for students to receive a Pell Grant, though it doesn’t propose a particular level.

In justifying those changes, House Republicans argued that the recent expansions, coupled with growth in the number of recipients, have "made Pell Grants more generous than the federal budget can afford." They contended that the cuts would make the program sustainable in the long term, and would "tailor aid to the truly needy."

But critics, including the Institute for College Access and Success, said cutting Pell Grants would force low-income students to borrow even more, drop out, or forgo college altogether. They pointed out that the program’s costs have declined since 2010 and are projected to remain level over the next decade, after adjusting for inflation.

The institute, and other student- and consumer-advocacy groups, urged lawmakers to pass instead a bill introduced on Tuesday by Senate Democrats that would make the Pell Grant a mandatory program, similar to Social Security.

Humanities Slashed

In other areas of the budget, the Republican plan calls for consolidating "duplicative" and "overlapping" job-training and teacher-quality programs, and reducing spending on educational exchange programs (while making a priority of those that receive matching foreign-government contributions, such as the Fulbright program).

The proposal would refocus research spending on basic research, while "responsibly paring back applied and commercial research and development," and would end student-loan interest subsidies for undergraduates while they are enrolled.

The plan would also end all federal support for the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, on the grounds that "the activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government." According to the budget, the endowments "can raise funds from private-sector patrons, which will also free them from any risk of political interference."

Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, criticized the proposal, saying "it would remove the major source of funding for critical activities such as preservation of endangered collections, research fellowships, and teacher seminars that are notoriously difficult to fund." In a written statement he said the Republican plan would put the NEH in competition with other organizations for "the relatively small pool of private humanities funding."

The House Budget Committee will debate the bill on Wednesday. The chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, has already announced that her panel will not offer a 2015 budget plan because lawmakers have already set spending levels for the coming year, under a two-year budget deal reached late last year. That chamber will not take up the House Republican proposal, either.

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