What Obama's 2016 Budget Means for Higher Ed

February 03, 2015

In the weeks leading up to the release of his 2016 budget, on Monday, President Obama had already previewed many of its key elements—including proposals to make community college free and streamline higher-education tax credits. But a few surprising details still emerged on Monday. For more on those developments, and on the uphill battle the president's plan faces in Congress, see an analysis by The Chronicle's Kelly Field.

It's worth being very explicit about that uphill battle in Congress, by the way. Below, you'll read about proposals that may never gain traction and funding requests that may be only partly fulfilled. With that said, here's a quick look at other ways the budget would affect academe:

A move to bolster Title IX enforcement.

The budget leaves little doubt that curtailing campus sexual assault is among the president's top higher-ed priorities. He's seeking a 31-percent increase in funding for the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which is charged with enforcing Title IX rules that require colleges to investigate and resolve complaints of sexual misconduct.

With that budget boost, the office would hire 210 new full-time staff members, increasing its ranks from 544 to 754—a number that might be better equipped to handle the more than 90 investigations that are currently open. That is just part of the ramping up—and professionalization—of what is becoming an entire industry that investigates and oversees sexual-assault complaints. —B.R.

Science research could make strides.

Mr. Obama asked Congress for a 3-percent increase next year in federal spending on research, calling the request a measured effort to bolster America's scientific capacity after years of tight budgets. The president's proposal would allocate $66.9-billion to basic and applied research in the 2016 fiscal year.

The administration would prefer even greater increases, said John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. But the proposal “reflects the reality that we continue to have to govern in an era of very tough choices,” he said.

Under the plan, the National Institutes of Health would get $31.3-billion, an increase of $1-billion over its current level. The NIH, the largest single provider of research money to American universities, has seen its budget shrink by nearly 25 percent since 2003, when adjusted for inflation.

Mr. Obama also asked Congress for $7.7-billion for the National Science Foundation and $5.3-billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, both representing one-year increases of about 5 percent.

The question becomes: Will Congress—with both of its chambers now controlled by Republicans—stand in the way? “These are pretty big asks,” said Matthew Hourihan, director of budget policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “and I’m not so sure that Congress is going to be willing to go this far.”

But even that forecast suggests greater optimism than in past years on Capitol Hill, where Mr. Obama’s budget suggestions often have made little headway. His prospects may be helped this year by a rebound in the nation’s economic health and by encouraging comments from some members of the new Republican majority. They include Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has expressed support for NIH spending in the past, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the NIH, who has also spoken favorably of the agency. —P.B.

Once more, the humanities hold steady.

If the president gets his way, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities would both see slight bumps in the 2016 fiscal year. Both endowments would receive just shy of $148-million—a 1.3-percent increase from the $146-million each got last year.

Even that modest increase is a step up from Mr. Obama's last budget, which left allocations to both endowments unchanged from the year before. But it's not cause for humanists to celebrate, said Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, an advocacy coalition.

The NEH’s "capacity has been eroded by cuts over the last three or four years," Mr. Kidd said. "This increase fails to even keep up with the rate of inflation over that time. We’re pleased to see any increase, but this level of increase fails to rebuild the lost capacity that has been caused by those cuts."

Meanwhile, the Institute of Museum and Library Services—which provides leadership to the country’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums—would receive a 4.2-percent increase in federal support under Mr. Obama’s budget, to roughly $237-million in the 2016 fiscal year from its current funding level of nearly $228-million. —M.W.

A college-sports loophole faces elimination.

The proposed budget would eliminate the charitable deduction for personal seat licenses in college sports, which many universities require fans to purchase before they are allowed to buy tickets to football and basketball games. Hardcore fans don't need the incentive, but the change could lead to fewer contributions. —B.W.

Eric Kelderman contributed to this report.