ACE and 34 other higher education associations sent a letter today to the leaders of the House and Senate budget and appropriations committees, asking them to maintain Congress’s “historic commitment” to student financial aid and scientific research as they begin work on funding the federal government for FY 2018, which begins Oct. 1.
As part of this commitment, the groups urged Congress to reject the Trump administration’s potentially devastating cuts to financial aid and research programs outlined in the president’s FY 2018 budget proposal released last month.
The Trump plan would cut more than $150 billion from student aid programs, leaving students to borrow more to access college and to pay more for those loans. It also proposes to eliminate billions in research funding, including $7.2 billion at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That cut is coupled with massive cuts at many other research agencies, with early analysis indicating an overall cut to research funding of 17 percent.
The continuing threat of sequestration: Along with the administration’s proposals, the federal investment in higher education is also under threat by discretionary spending caps negotiated back in 2011 under the Budget Control Act (BCA). That law ended the country’s 2011 debt ceiling crisis, raising the ceiling and creating budget caps to limit spending over 10 years, with separate caps for defense aimed to reduce spending by $1 trillion by 2021.
The BCA has been modified three times since its enactment; most recently, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 raised the cap for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 and gave a boost to defense. Without another statutory correction, FY 2018 non-defense discretionary funding will be reduced by $3 billion below FY 2017 levels.
As the groups pointed out in their letter, despite the support of Congress over the last few years, many student aid and scientific research programs remain below their FY 2011 funding levels when adjusted for inflation. Further reductions would “disproportionately harm the programs that are proven to provide the most effective pathways for low-income and other working Americans to move up the economic ladder and build and maintain economic prosperity.”
Congress signals support: Last month, Congress finalized a FY 2017 omnibus appropriations measure that expanded the Pell Grant program for low- and middle-income students and provided $2 billion in additional funding for NIH research. These increases, along with continued funding support for critical student aid and scientific research programs, illustrate the strong bipartisan support that exists for these programs. Forty Senate Democrats and fifteen Senate Republicans, led by Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA) and Richard Burr (D-NC), followed up with a letter May 24 to Senate appropriators requesting continuation of this strong commitment to NIH funding in FY 2018.
In a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing yesterday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced open criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats as she testified on the Trump administration’s budget proposal. In opening remarks, subcommittee chair Roy Blunt (R-MO) called the request “difficult to defend” and that Congress was unlikely to pass the kinds of cuts the president proposed. (For more details on that hearing, see Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
The House is expected to pass its FY 2018 funding bills before the August recess, though a timeline for Senate action is unclear. The federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, but Congress has not met that deadline in recent years, instead passing extensions into the new fiscal year.