Government

What Trump’s Budget Outline Would Mean for Higher Ed

March 16, 2017

President Trump laid out the spending priorities for his administration on Thursday, releasing a budget "blueprint" that includes a $9-billion cut for the U.S. Department of Education, more than 13 percent, as well as decreases at several agencies that provide money for academic research, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The administration’s outline also calls for eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The deep reductions in discretionary spending fall on nearly every executive agency, in order to offset more than $50 billion in increases for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

The proposed cuts at the Education Department include plans to ax several programs that aid primarily low-income and minority students, while increasing spending for school-choice programs in elementary and secondary education. Although the administration recommends largely preserving the existing Pell Grant program — the primary form of federal aid for needy students — it may sacrifice the possibility of year-round grants that many in Congress and higher education have called for.

The administration’s blueprint for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins on October 1, comes with several caveats. The budget document, known as a "skinny budget," was light on details, excluding any estimates of projected revenues or mandatory spending on programs like Medicaid. In addition, the president's plans will have to pass muster with a majority of Republican members of Congress, who gave the outline a lukewarm reception.

But the cuts in areas that may disproportionately affect disadvantaged citizens raised alarms among higher-education advocates. —Eric Kelderman

Here are more details of the president’s budget:

Prominent Cuts

In a statement, the National Endowment for the Arts said the proposal to eliminate the agency was a "disappointment," but as a federal agency it cannot advocate for funding. "We will, however, continue our practice of educating about the NEA’s vital role in serving our nation’s communities," read the statement.

Similarly, William D. Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, lamented the agency’s proposed elimination in a statement. "We are greatly saddened to learn of this proposal for elimination, as NEH has made significant contributions to the public good over its 50-year history," read Mr. Adams’s statement. But, he said, "we must abide by this budget request as this initial stage of the federal budget process gets under way."

Both agencies said that they would work with the Office of Management and Budget during the budget process, and that their fate in the 2018 fiscal year ultimately lies with Congress, which will determine the agencies’ funding levels.

President Trump’s budget also proposes to eliminate funding for 19 independent agencies, like the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. African Development Foundation, and the Appalachian Regional Commission. (The budget also would reduce spending for the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs but would focus on "sustaining" the department’s flagship Fulbright Program for international exchange.) —Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz

Pell Grants Protected, but Some Surplus Taken

In February, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, expressed support for year-round Pell Grant funding, saying that it "makes a lot of sense." But he is not the first congressional Republican to back the idea. The battle to restore year-round funding for the program, which helps pay college costs for students who demonstrate financial need, has seen bipartisan support since it was eliminated, in 2011.

But while President Trump’s proposed outline wouldn’t cut the program, it does call for the cancellation of $3.9 billion in carryover Pell funding. As it currently stands, the Pell Grant program runs a surplus of more than $10 billion thanks to a change in the eligibility requirements for students. President Trump’s proposal would siphon off some of that money, reallocating it to other parts of the government. Last year lawmakers pre-emptively fought to prevent that very thing from happening.

John B. King Jr., the second education secretary under President Barack Obama, said the cuts would be "draconian." Mr. King, who is now president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization for students, said that if the cuts suggested in the proposal were enacted, "all students, particularly students of color and low-income students, throughout the entire continuum of our education system, would suffer." —Adam Harris

Programs for Low-Income Students

The proposed budget includes nearly $200 million in cuts for federal programs that help disadvantaged students make it into and through college. Those include an umbrella of eight outreach programs, called TRIO, that support the progress of low-income, first-generation, and disabled students, starting in middle school.

Also on the chopping block, with a proposed 32-percent reduction, is the competitive grant program Gear Up.

It provides six to seven years of support for tutoring, mentoring, scholarships, and other services to low-income students and families. The program follows them from middle school through high-school graduation and sometimes into their first year of college. Counselors help parents understand the benefits of college and how to apply for financial aid.

Ranjit Sidhu, president of the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships, said Gear Up offers a solid return on investment. In 2014, 77 percent of program participants enrolled in a postsecondary institution right after high school, according to federal statistics. That compares with 45.5 percent of low-income students over all.

The proposed cuts are troubling at a time when a new report shows that growing numbers of students are hungry and homeless, said Josh Wyner, vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program for community colleges.

"If we want an educated work force and we have growing numbers of students with significant out-of-classroom needs, it stands to reason that we would double down on the supports they need, not cut them," he said.

Not all of the programs under the TRIO umbrella have been effective, Mr. Wyner said, but wholesale cuts are "shortsighted."

The outline also suggests cuts in Federal Work-Study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant — a federal grant for low-income students that would be completely eliminated under the outline. Meanwhile, funding for work-study would be cut "significantly," with money redirected to students who needed it most, according to the proposal. Federal funds for a variety of job-training programs for seniors and disadvantaged youth would also be cut.

"Employers need skilled workers," said Maria K. Flynn, president of Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit organization. "Cutting programs that support America’s current and future work force is problematic," she said, and inconsistent with the president’s stated focus on creating jobs. She said she was encouraged, though, that the proposed budget would help states expand apprenticeships. —Katherine Mangan

Claims of HBCU Support ‘Ring Hollow’

President Trump’s budget calls for maintaining federal support to historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions to the tune of $492 million. But it does not propose new funding, which had been a key request from HBCU presidents who attended a prominent meeting with President Trump last month.

The meeting generated controversy, including when Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, issued a statement saying HBCUs were "real pioneers" on school choice. Some HBCU presidents, who had come to Washington with an eye on more federal funding, called the meeting a rough start to what needed to be a productive relationship.

With the proposed elimination of the supplemental-grant program and the cancellation of surplus Pell funding, the "skinny budget" does not move that relationship along.

"Less than three weeks ago, this administration claimed it is a priority to advocate for HBCUs," said Alma Adams, a Democratic congresswoman from North Carolina. "But, after viewing this budget proposal, those calls ring hollow."

Michael J. Sorrell, president of the historically black Paul Quinn College, in Dallas, said nothing in the budget blueprint should come as a shock. "It’s what he promised," said Mr. Sorrell. "When someone says the goal is to deconstruct the administrative state, these are the types of things you expect." The burden now falls to Congress to decide whether that vision is acceptable, he added.

Congressional Republican leaders affirmed last month that they would be advocates for HBCUs, Mr. Sorrell said. "These are the moments when this relationship will be tested."

"If you want to be an advocate," he said, "fight for us." —Adam Harris

Deep Cuts in Research Spending — if They Stick

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would slash billions of dollars in federal spending on research. By pairing those cuts with restrictive immigration policies, many university leaders said, the president has launched a dangerous assault on the United States' pre-eminence in science and technology.

The Trump plan would cut the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent — from $31.7 billion to $25.9 billion — while promising "a major reorganization of NIH’s institutes and centers."

The budget would wipe out a range of federal environmental and climate programs, including the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, a project Mr. Trump’s energy secretary, Rick Perry, described just last week as a "key to advancing America’s energy economy."

Even some of Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans were aghast. "I think the president is insane," said John Edward Porter, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who once led the House subcommittee responsible for funding the NIH and other key health agencies.

"This budget is a budget that plays with his base," said Mr. Porter, who now serves on the board of Research!America, a broad association that includes academic and corporate backers of research. "But as far as a serious document that could be supported by the Congress, it is certainly not anywhere likely to happen."

More probable, Mr. Porter said, is that Congress approves an increase for the NIH on the order of $1 billion to $2 billion, given how strongly members of both parties support medical research. Lawmakers are likely to treat the suggestion of realigning NIH’s divisions as "ridiculous," he said.

The Trump budget plan made no mention of the National Science Foundation, apparently leaving the NSF figure for the more detailed budget plan expected later in the spring, but it called for a combined 9.8-percent cut in the budgets of all agencies not listed individually.

"If they were to be enacted, these cuts signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader," said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an industry-financed think tank. "The Trump budget throws this great legacy away and is putting us on the path to being an economy that is a hewer of wood and drawer of water."

Still, even if Republicans on Capitol Hill reject the administration’s proposed cuts, lawmakers have a recent track record of holding any increases in federal spending on scientific research near the overall rate of inflation.

Both the NIH and NSF have "plenty of bipartisan support in Congress," said Barry Toiv, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities, which represents major research institutions. "However, if Congress goes along with deep overall cuts in non-defense discretionary funding, significant cuts to research spending are almost inevitable." —Paul Basken