Congressional Budget Rejects President Trump’s Higher Education Cuts—for Now

A professor monitors his students as they take a final exam at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, April 20, 2017.

In a new bipartisan budget agreement reached on Sunday, Congress rejected a majority of the devastating higher education cuts proposed in President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget released in March. Instead of cutting billions of dollars from key financial aid and support programs, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 maintains or even increases funding for programs at risk under Trump’s proposal.

The agreement is a welcome rejection of Trump’s request for draconian student aid cuts. But the programs are not out of the budgetary woods yet. Congress now needs to pass a spending bill for FY 2018, creating another chance for reductions.

If passed, the omnibus bill would fund the government through September 2017, the end of the fiscal year. But work on the 2018 spending bill is already underway and could mark a steep departure from the agreement reached this week.

Unlike President Trump’s budget proposal, which slashed more than $5 billion in support for programs that mostly serve low-income students, the congressional budget bill largely maintains or increases funding for the same programs. This column provides a look at the key differences between the president’s priorities and the congressional spending laid out in the omnibus bill.

Pell Grants

Restoration of the year-round Pell Grant is perhaps the biggest policy win for higher education advocates on both sides of the aisle. The grant, which provides low-income students with funding to afford college, would now allow up to $2,960 in additional money for students taking courses over the summer—a provision that was eliminated five years ago. The expansion is expected to benefit an estimated 1 million students with an average award of $1,650.

The new agreement also increases the maximum award by $105, bringing it up to the $5,920 proposed by the Obama administration in 2016. By contrast, President Trump’s budget proposed maintaining the current award and did not include year-round Pell Grants.

There is one downside in the spending bill for Pell. While year-round Pell and an increase in the maximum award are considered policy wins, the bill also cuts $1.3 billion from the projected $10.6 billion surplus. That surplus has taken years to build and came at the expense of other student aid cuts, such as subsidized loans for graduate students. It’s intended to protect the program in the event that an economic downturn leads to a spike in enrollment. This was the case in the 2008 recession, when many displaced workers sought to go back to school and families with sunken earnings became eligible for Pell.

That said, the enacted cut to the surplus is a small portion of what it could have been. President Trump’s budget proposed a larger $3.9 billion raid to the surplus for use in funding other priorities. By contrast, the omnibus bill proposes a smaller cut and instead invests some of the surplus back into students to fund year-round Pell.

TRIO and GEAR UP

The congressional budget increases funding for TRIO and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP—programs that help students of all ages access and succeed in college. Under the bill, TRIO gains an additional $50 million and GEAR UP increases by $17 million, for a combined addition of $67 million. TRIO provides support to low-income and first-generation college students that includes tutoring, mentoring, and research opportunities. GEAR UP offers college preparation assistance to low-income elementary, middle, and high school students. Under President Trump’s proposal, the programs were slated for a combined $193 million cut.

Other student aid programs

Lastly, the congressional budget maintains funding for other key student aid programs. The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or SEOG, which provides additional grant funding for low-income students, is maintained at $733 million. Federal work-study, which provides subsidized employment for students, is also maintained at its current level of $989 million. This is, again, a big departure from President Trump’s budget, which proposed eliminating the SEOG and reducing federal work-study by an estimated 50 percent.

Conclusion

The outright rejection in the 2017 budget of President Trump’s priorities is potentially indicative of a looming 2018 spending battle. For now, Congress is unwilling to cave on student aid programs that are important to states and districts. But one budget bill is not enough. Congress must continue to fight for new increases and improvements to student aid, as it did with year-round Pell. And it must ensure that future cuts do not happen.

Antoinette Flores is a Senior Policy Analyst on the Postsecondary Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress.