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Education advocates expect a tough fight to preserve funding for Pell Grants and job training as Congress again attempts to craft a spending bill for the current fiscal year (FY) that will include cuts to rein in the federal budget.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted down two bills to fund federal programs for the remainder of FY11. The more extreme House bill would have cut about $60 billion in federal spending, including lowering the Pell Grant maximum from $5,550 to $4,705, trimming the low-income-serving Trio and GEAR UP programs, and eliminating tech prep and many federal job training programs. The Senate’s more moderate bill would have cut spending by $6.5 billion, preserving Pell Grant and job training funding at FY10 levels.
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Congress will likely pass another temporary spending bill to keep the federal government running, perhaps as early as Friday. Lawmakers will then have to tackle a permanent bill and find a “sweet spot” somewhere between $10 billion and $60 billion in cuts, according to education advocates. Even if lawmakers decide to split the difference, it would still mean $25 billion to $30 billion in cuts.
“Most of the real tough fighting has yet to get underway,” David Baime, vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), said during an AACC webinar Thursday on legislative issues.
Education advocates are concerned that the Pell Grant program, which is serving a growing number of students who qualify for the financial assistance, could be a target simply because of its size. The program comprises 46 percent of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget and its costs have doubled over the last four years, while the number of recipients has increased by 42 percent.
About 3 million community college students receive Pell Grants, representing about one-third of all Pell Grant recipients, according to AACC.
“It’s really made a huge impact on our campuses,” Baime said of the student grants.
Preserving Pell Grants will likely mean that other programs that benefit community college students will likely see significant cuts. For example, President Barack Obama has recommended eliminating the $102 million tech prep program in FY12, which makes it vulnerable to congressional cuts in the current fiscal year.
Some Republican lawmakers are also eyeing federal job training programs, citing recent federal reports that the programs are often duplicative and inefficient. The fact that Congress has not re-authorized the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which governs most federal job training programs, makes it especially vulnerable to potential funding cuts. (Reauthorization has been pending since 2004.)
WIA supporters would prefer Congress to reauthorize the law and improve programs rather than “de-fund” them. Even though some of the programs could operate more efficiently, they still served 8 million people last year, many of whom lost their jobs.
“The programs are desperately needed,” said James Hermes, AACC’s director of government relations.
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