Congress to Grade the President’s Higher Education Budget Proposal

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by Brent Jaquet, Senior Vice President

Higher education programs would fare well under the president’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal to Congress. That’s largely because the plan would provide new funding and an overall 7 percent increase across the board to agencies, assuming that various legislative, tax and program changes will be enacted this year.

But whether any proposed increases or policy changes ever materialize is another story and certainly will be dependent on how closely the ideas match with Republican initiatives.

One proposal likely to get a second look would streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) from 108 questions to no more than 78. This is along the lines of legislation authored by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), although his bill would more drastically reduce the number of questions to two. The president’s budget proposal would also drop the expected family contribution threshold for Pell grants by $600 because some of the deleted questions would cover net worth, savings amounts and other investments. The Administration would move toward relying more on information available in federal tax returns. FAFSA simplification is being considered for inclusion in an upcoming draft of the next Higher Education Authorization later this year.

One effort on a collision course with Congress is the proposal to rate colleges and eventually link scores to availability of Federal financial aid. Unlike last year’s budget, the new proposal does not seek additional funding to start up the effort; instead Education Department officials have indicated they will handle it with current staff.  Public comments on the Department’s initial ratings plan are due February 17.

The Pell Grant program would realize an increase in the maximum award under the budget plan – an increase from $5,775 to $5,915 for the 2016-17 academic year. The maximum award would also be indexed to inflation starting in 2018.  Other changes to the program would require tighter tracking of academic progress for students.

Providing competitive grants for innovation and evidence-based strategies, the “First in the World” program has been funded by Congress for the past two years.  The FY 2015 program received $60 million in support, while the FY2016 budget would boost that $200 million.

Federal TRIO programs would receive a $20 million increase covering 2,800 programs assisting challenged students to successfully negotiate college.

Income-driven student loan repayment would be simplified and some benefits scaled back to drive $14 billion in savings that would be redirected to the Pell program over the next decade. This proposal is similar to bipartisan Senate legislation on loan repayment.

Other proposals would change the Perkins Loan program and move an estimated $7 billion in savings to Pell grants as well. The changes involve moving the loan disbursement function from universities to the government and using student outcome metrics to determine continued eligibility.

Enforcement to help fight campus sexual assault – a bipartisan Congressional concern -- would be boosted by 31 percent to hire more investigators and cover more Title IX investigations by the Office of Civil Rights.

The program making the biggest splash in headlines is the new concept to provide two years of free community college education to students meeting requirements. The “America’s College Promise” program would cost $1.36 billion in 2016 and $60.3 billion over 10 years. This is a legacy proposal by a President nearing the end of his term. For the program to work, states would have to invest more in higher education, community colleges would have to commit to strengthening their programs and outcomes, and students would have to be enrolled at least half-time and be making good progress toward graduation. 

Congress, of course, would first have to agree to provide the money and find a “scoring offset” to pay for it. They might give the President an “A” for effort in generating national discussion but are very unlikely to assign a passing grade to his program.

Lisa Ellington

Big Thinkery, LLC, 1011 Kenilworth Court Northwest, Concord, NC, 28027