Congress has passed a $1 trillion omnibus spending measure that includes significant changes to the federal Pell Grant program. What’s more, an Obama administration proposal to create a new federal agency for ed-tech research and development received no funding in the bill.
The measure, which averted a possible government shutdown, funds 10 Cabinet agencies for fiscal year 2012. It awarded a slight increase to the Pentagon and veterans’ programs while trimming the budgets of most other domestic agencies. Democrats agreed to the cuts in exchange for dropping many policy provisions sought by GOP conservatives, such as attempts to block new rules aimed at preserving net neutrality and limiting greenhouse gases.
Missing from the legislation was funding to create a new federal agency designed to pursue breakthroughs in educational technology. Obama requested $90 million for the agency’s first year in the budget plan he sent to Congress earlier this year.
Obama’s proposal would have created an Advanced Research Projects Agency – Education (ARPA-ED), with the goal of transforming educational technology just as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has transformed military technology. But the project wasn’t funded in the budget bill passed by Congress.
The maximum Pell Grant awards for low-income college students will remain at $5,550 for students beginning college in fall 2012, but Congress has tightened its requirements for the program under the new bill.
Students who do not complete their undergraduate degrees in six years will lose Pell Grant funding; previously, students were eligible for Pell Grants as long as they completed their undergraduate degrees in nine years. The change is expected to save the federal government about $11 billion over the next decade.
It’s estimated that about 100,000 students would be affected by this change, said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications for the advocacy group Education Trust. Students who take that long to get a degree typically are either transfer students who don’t receive full credit for previous coursework or those working and supporting a family, Wilkins said. Some, she said, will be surprised to learn they might have to come up with thousands of dollars to make up the difference.
“For those 100,000 kids, it’s pretty bad,” Wilkins said.
The bill also reduces the income level under which a student will be eligible to receive the maximum Pell Grant amount, from $30,000 to $23,000, and it eliminates a six-month grade period on federal student loan payments. In addition, it requires recipients to have a high school diploma, a GED certificate, or complete a home-schooling program to receive a Pell Grant.
As more low-income students have enrolled in college during a weak economy, spending on Pell Grants has exploded, nearly doubling in just over two years to $34.8 billion. In 2008-09, according to data collected by the College Board, 6.2 million students received Pell Grants averaging $2,945; in 2010-11, 9.1 million students received grants averaging $3,828.
The bill passed in the House on Dec. 16 by a vote of 296-121. The Senate approved the measure on Dec. 17, with a 67-32 vote. It now goes to President Obama for approval.