Budget deal to boost Pell Grants

    Late last month, Congress passed a controversial 2006 federal budget framework, offering mixed funding levels for higher education and student financial aid programs. With no Democrat voting in favor of the joint resolution, the budget proposal was passed in back-to-back votes of 214 to 211 in the House of Representatives and 52 to 47 in the Senate.

    The congressional budget will eliminate the multibillion-dollar shortfall in the Pell Grant program that has held the level of student aid stagnant in recent years and will fund a $100 increase in the maximum grant award in each of the next five years, a plan backed by President George W. Bush.

    “The budget reflects an increase in Pell Grants of $1.3 billion or 10.1 percent over 2005 [levels] and $417 million in new budget authority … to increase the maximum grant by $100 to $4,150, beginning in 2006,” Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) stated in a press release. “The number of recipients would increase by 138,000 over 2005, an increase of 2.6 percent. Since 2001, Pell Grant spending has increased by $4.9 billion, or 56 percent.”

    Though the resolution frees additional funds to be used for the Pell Grant program, special subcommittees in the House and Senate must approve the increase before it can take effect.

    The resolution also rolls back some of the cuts proposed by Bush. Most notably, the resolution did not include the president’s recommendation to eliminate the Perkins Loan program.

    “The budget resolution does not make any mention of other key education programs that the president proposed to eliminate as part of his fiscal year 2006 budget — T.R.I.O.’s Upward Bound and Talent Search, G.E.A.R. U.P., Perkins Vocational Education, L.E.A.P. or Perkins Loans — nor is there any mention of the president’s recommendation to reclaim the Perkins Loans revolving funds now held by campuses,” American Council on Education President David Ward stated in his weekly newsletter. “The fact that these programs were not singled out for cuts indicates that some key members of Congress do not want to adopt the president’s proposed cuts.”

    All of the programs mentioned aid for students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds to prepare them to attend higher education institutions. According to U.S. Student Association President Ajita Talwalker, such programs are crucial in helping many students obtain a college degree.

    Though the resolution did not mandate many of the cuts proposed by Bush, it reversed amendments introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in an earlier Senate resolution. Kennedy’s amendment called for an additional $5.4 billion for education funding by closing a corporate tax loophole.

    The amendment, which was previously approved by a majority of the Senate, also mandated that appropriators increase the maximum Pell Grant awards by $450 in 2006 and restore full funding to the G.E.A.R. U.P. and T.R.I.O. programs.

    “Education is the golden door of opportunity for our citizens,” Kennedy stated in a press release. “Parents know that education makes the American dream possible for their children. … The budget proposed by the president and the Republican leadership in Congress fails our future.”

    The resolution also calls for stationary levels of domestic discretionary spending for three years, a plan that could have an impact on student financial aid.

    “By agreeing to freeze domestic discretionary spending for three years, Congress is placing a serious limitation on the category of funding that provides money for all federal student aid — except student loans — and scientific research,” Ward stated. “So the difficult federal budget situation we face this year is just round one.”

    With the passage of the framework, Congressional members from the House and Senate were able to successfully reconcile differing budget proposals put forth by the two chambers.

    The appropriation committees will now begin to draft bills to provide the actual funding outlined in the joint resolution.

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