Trump’s Higher Education Budget Robs More Than $5 Billion From Low-Income Students

The Howard University campus at sunrise in Washington, D.C, on December 19, 2015.

With barely more than 200 words devoted to higher education in its new budget proposal, the Trump administration manages to take us on a brief but dizzying journey through the looking glass to a place where cuts of billions of dollars to a crucial grant program for low-income students can be called “safeguarding” and reductions of hundreds of millions of dollars in other valuable supports for underserved students can somehow be reconciled with protecting minority students.

Broadly speaking, President Donald Trump’s so-called “America First” budget robs needy students of more than $5 billion in support and takes us further away from the prospect of an America that is first among nations in any meaningful sense.

These cuts will do nothing to address rising tuition, college access, or gaps in college graduation.

Raiding the Pell Grant surplus

Arguably the budget’s most impressive spin is the claim that a $3.9 billion cut to the Pell Grant program “safeguards” this fundamental building block of support for low-income students. Fortunately, this cut will not hurt students immediately because it is coming out of a projected $10.6 billion surplus in the program.

That surplus, however, has taken years to build up and exists to protect the program from additional cuts if costs suddenly spike due to unexpected enrollment increases, for example, during a recession. If the economy sours, the Pell shortfall could easily show up years sooner.

To appreciate the scale of a $3.9 billion cut in the Pell surplus, consider that this sum would fund Pell grants for every student from Texas and North Carolina for a year.

It’s also clear that the administration does not intend to use that “savings” from the Pell program for other education priorities. The proposed increase in school choice funding is less than half the proposed Pell cut, and that’s before accounting for other reductions in the agency. In other words, a hard-earned surplus that came about through cuts to benefits is going up in smoke for nothing.

Cure the disease and kill the patient

The budget also proposes cuts to two programs it calls less well-targeted to the students who would benefit the most. The administration would eliminate entirely the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or SEOG, and reduce the Federal Work-Study allocation by an unstated amount. The SEOG provides additional grant aid to students, beginning with the lowest-income Pell Grant recipients. Work-study provides subsidized employment for students, including jobs on and off campus.

The cuts amount to curing a flu patient by hacking off her arms. Both programs have a similar flaw, which is that funding gets distributed to colleges based upon an outdated formula that favors wealthier private colleges, largely in the Northeast.

Even still, a majority of SEOG money goes to low-income students. According to U.S. Department of Education data, 81 percent of SEOG dollars went either to students whose families earn less than $30,000 or to independent students who are highly likely to be low-income. Another 16 percent goes to families making between $30,000 and $60,000 a year.

The Federal Work-Study program is indeed less well targeted. According to U.S. Department of Education data, 44 percent of work-study dollars go to independent students or families making $30,000 or less, with another 20 percent going to families making between $30,000 and $60,000. About 10 percent goes to graduate students.

Cutting work-study instead of reforming it is a massive missed opportunity. A new formula as well as additional flexibility for schools could make the program a powerful tool for helping students get more work experience tied to their career aspirations or support community service work.

A dubious approach to TRIO and GEAR UP programs

The budget proposal also sells low-income student short by seeking to cut $193 million from the TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, programs. That amounts to a 10 percent cut for TRIO, which provide support to low-income and first-generation students ranging from tutoring and mentoring to research opportunities. That cut would translate into about 92,000 fewer students receiving services, according to the Council for Opportunity in Education.

GEAR UP, which offers college prep opportunities to low-income elementary, middle, and high school students, would be cut by one-third, and no new awards would be granted until the department completes what the budget calls a rigorous evaluation of a portion of the program.

Crocodile tears for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions

Another highly questionable claim in the skinny budget is that it “protects support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.” While it did not make any explicit cuts to Title III and V, which support HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Minority-Serving Institutions, or MSIs, President Trump’s budget hardly fulfills his pledge to “make HBCUs a priority in the White House.

In addition, the math doesn’t add up. Discretionary funding for Titles III and V in fiscal year 2017 was approximately $578 million. President Trump’s proposal only provides these programs with $492 million, leaving an $86 million gap. It is not clear from where that money will be cut, but $86 million happens to be nearly the exact amount of funding for the Title III Part A program Strengthening Institutions.

Funding for this program assists institutions that serve low-income students. Grants go toward anything from improving academic quality, retention, and remedial training, to fiscal stability of eligible institutions, many of which are underfunded. While this program isn’t specifically targeted toward HBCUs or MSIs, any cuts to Title III leave the country’s most vulnerable students at risk.

And, of course, the cuts to Pell, TRIO, and GEAR UP will all disproportionately hurt minority students.

Rather than “continuing to help make college education more affordable,” as the budget blueprint claims, the Trump administration is making a direct assault on the opportunities for low-income students and people of color to complete an education and fulfill their career goals.

Marcella Bombardieri and Antoinette Flores are Senior Policy Analysts at the Center for American Progress. Ben Miller is the Senior Director for Postsecondary Education at the Center. Sara Garcia is a Research Associate at the Center.