Federal Budget Deal Spares Pell but Shrinks Research and Education Programs

April 12, 2011

[Updated at 5:40 p.m. with information on international-education cuts.]

The federal budget deal reached by Democrats and Republicans over the weekend would preserve the maximum Pell Grant but cut a host of research and education programs, including global-exchange and foreign-language efforts, according to details released on Tuesday.

Lawmakers are expected to pass the bill, which would finance the federal government through the end of September, this week.

Over all, the bill would shrink the federal budget by nearly $40-billion, the largest one-year cut ever in federal spending. Some of the savings would come from ending a policy that allows students to receive two Pell Grants in a single year.

Research would also take a significant hit. The National Institutes of Health would be cut by $260-million, and the National Science Foundation would get $53-million less than last year. Career- and technical-education programs would lose $138-million.

The bill would also trim $20-million each from Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and the Gear Up college-preparation program, while shaving $25-million from the federal TRIO programs for disadvantaged students. A handful of smaller programs would be abolished altogether, including the Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership Program, which bolsters states' need-based aid programs.

Combined, the Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services Departments face a $5.5-billion cut, a 3.4-percent reduction over the previous fiscal year.

Averting Deeper Cuts

Still, President Obama and Senate Democrats were able to stave off much deeper cuts approved by House Republicans in a spending bill they passed in February, including an $845 cut to the maximum Pell Grant and a $1.4-billion reduction in spending at the National Institutes of Health. The House Republican plan would also have cut $359.5-million, or 5.2 percent, from the National Science Foundation.

The Obama administration, however, appears to have finally given up on its much-touted effort to double the budget of the National Science Foundation, as recommended in a 2005 National Academies report. That report proposed that the NSF budget be doubled within seven years. The Obama administration repeatedly set a target of 11 years. Now, in a statement on this week's budget agreement, the White House said, "Even though we will no longer double the funding of key research and development agencies, you will still see strong investments" in the NSF and other science agencies.

"Under these circumstances, it was going to be extremely difficult to come out even flat," said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, the main lobbying group for research institutions. "Going forward, I think that it's going to be important to ensure that the focus of deficit reduction is where it belongs, on entitlements and revenues, rather than on domestic discretionary spending, which took the brunt of these cuts."

Many of the cuts included in the budget compromise were suggested in the president's budget for the 2012 fiscal year, including the elimination of year-round Pell Grants and the LEAP Program, and the reduction in career-education funds.

Democrats also repelled Republican efforts to abolish the AmeriCorps national-service program, negotiating a $23-million cut to the program instead.

Global-exchange programs that send American students and scholars abroad and bring international academics to the United States would take a 5.5-percent hit in the budget, with appropriations levels being reduced by $35-million, to $600-million, for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. It's not yet clear which of the international-education programs, which include the Fulbright Scholar Program, will absorb the cuts, said Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, a coalition of education and nongovernmental groups.

The budget compromise would also slash federal funds for international-education and foreign-language study by $50-million, or 40 percent, to $76-million. Those projects, which include university-based National Resource Centers and Language Resource Centers, are supported under two federal laws, Title VI of the Higher Education Act and the Fulbright-Hays Act.

Bigger budget battles may lie ahead. Over the next few months, Congress will have to negotiate a spending bill for fiscal year 2012, which starts on October 1, and decide whether to raise the limit on what the government can borrow. Economists expect the country to reach the so-called debt ceiling in May.

Paul Basken and Karin Fischer contributed to this article.