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Education

College Heads Warn Congress Of Student-Aid ‘Emergency’

By Robert Rothman — January 10, 2020 4 min read

WASHINGTON--Unless the Congress provides an additional $369- million in funding for the Pell Grant program by July, some 300,000 college students will be eliminated from the program, and another 600,000 will have their awards reduced, a group of 52 college presidents warned Congressional leaders last week.

But Congressional aides said that budget constraints would make a supplemental appropriations bill difficult to pass.

“The Pell Grant program is in an emergency condition at the moment,” said Sister Janice Ryan, president of Trinity College, a women’s college in Vermont. Other presidents noted that the 300,000 students threatened with elimination from the program represent 10 percent of all participants.

The “emergency” in the program has come about, Education Department officials say, because the $3.6-billion appropriated in fiscal 1986 is not sufficient to cover the total number of grants, which provide aid up to $2,100 a year.

The appropriated amount is $215-million less than the amount needed to provide grants to all students who qualify for the program, the officials say. In addition, another $154 million was cut from the program as a result of reductions mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law.

While such shortfalls have occurred in the past, this year the department will use its authority to reduce the number and amount of awards, rather than borrow against future appropriations, as it has done in prior years, department officials say.

Presidents Lobby

The large contingent of college presidents geared their talks with Congressional leaders last week primarily to President Reagan’s fiscal 1987 budget proposal, which would cut over $2 billion from higher-education programs.

The presidents said that, while they ordinarily leave lobbying chores to the Washington staffs of their national associations, the size of the proposed cuts had prompted their action.

“What they are proposing in the White House is catastrophic,” said William Harris, president of Payne College, a predominantly black college in Georgia.

Although the group was unable to meet with Administration officials, the presidents said in a press conference that they had received a good response from the Congress.

“We are gratified that the message we told was listened to,” said Natale Sicuro, president of Southern Oregon State College. “We areconfident that Congress will not permit that cut to go through.”

Pell Grant Urgency

But in addition to their efforts to block the proposed cuts for fiscal 1987, the presidents expressed urgency about the need to supplement current-year funding for the Pell Grant program to protect students who are making college plans for this fall.

“Your son or daughter, or brother or sister, do not have certainty as to how they will pay their tuition bill before they go to college,” said Sister Ryan.

The Pell Grant program has been short of necessary funds every year for the past four years, according to Congressional aides. But because of its magnitude--and the Education Department’s method of addressing it--this year’s shortfall has stirred a call for action among postsecondary educators.

The department’s past method of handling shortfalls--borrowing against future appropriations--has resulted in an accumulated deficit of $490 million.

Both the Congress and the department have sought funding strategies that would quell the growth of the deficit. In its fiscal 1987 budget, the department proposed paying off the deficit over two years, while reducing awards, rather than borrowing again, this year.

The Congress also proposed reducing awards when it passed the appropriations bill for the program last fall. At the time, college lobbyists said, a $70-million shortfall was anticipated.

The actual shortfall proved to be much larger, mainly because of an unexpectedly high number of older students who receive maximum awards, according to C. Ronald Kimberling, assistant secretary of education for postsecondary education. With the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts, the department would have to eliminate 300,000 students from the program, reducing the number of participants from almost 3 million to 2.7 million, and reduce awards for another 500,000 students, he said.

A study by the Congressional Budget Office indicates that 340,000 students would be eliminated and 600,000 would have awards reduced.

Supplemental Bill Urged

To prevent such reductions, the college presidents urged that the Congress pass a supplemental appropriations bill to provide the needed funds. The House is currently considering a supplemental spending measure, but it does not contain funds for Pell Grants. According to Mr. Sicuro, Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the college group he would consider offering an amendment to include such funding when the bill reaches the Senate.

But whether the Congress will pass a separate supplemental for the Pell Grants remains in doubt, according to Frederick Pfluger, a staff assistant for the House Appropriations subcommittee on the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Members are reluctant, he said, to propose additional spending.

But Mr. Pfluger added that the panel was considering “50 or 60" other options to protect award recipients. He would not discuss the alternative plans, he said, until the members have made a decision.

Maureen Byrnes, a staff member for the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Education Department, said that that panel was also weighing alternatives.

But college lobbyists said a supplemental appropriation is necessary. “There is no middle ground,” said Charles B. Saunders Jr., vice president for governmental relations of the American Council on Education. “If there isn’t enough money, students will lose aid.”

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