Appropriations as an Afterthought

It says something about the nature of the political conversation in the nation’s capital these days that passage of a bill that will raise the maximum Pell Grant to $5,500 and lift spending on the National Institutes of Health soaring to a record $31 billion elicits barely a nod from college lobbyists and other higher education leaders.

Granted, there’s been plenty to distract them: the Obama administration directed tens of billions in unexpected funds toward those and other programs last winter as part of its economic stimulus package, and legislation is pending — stalled by the Great Health Care Debate — that would overhaul the nation’s student loan programs, pour billions of dollars into community colleges, and radically transform several major student aid programs. So college officials can be forgiven for being a little preoccupied.

Still, Sunday’s passage by the Senate of a massive spending bill that will finance the Department of Education, the NIH, and most other key science, labor and education programs in the 2010 fiscal year warrants at least a little bit of examination. (The fiscal year began in October, so this legislation is months late.)

A table showing how various programs fared appears at the bottom of this article; it shows among other things that, to the dismay of advocates for the Perkins Loan Program, that program would receive no money in 2010. Programs that provide funds to historically black and Hispanic serving colleges get big increases in the legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign. The National Science Foundation earned a big boost in research funding, and the AmeriCorps national service program saw a nearly 40 percent increase. The vast majority of other education and job training programs would receive the same level of federal support they got in 2009.

One other story line in the legislation might be called the Incredible Shrinking FIPSE. The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which was once a laboratory for innovation in higher education, has steadily been eroded in recent years as lawmakers have increasingly tapped its comparatively small pool of money to finance pet projects for local institutions. Earlier this year officials at the Education Department had to cancel the program’s annual peer-reviewed competition because Congress had essentially earmarked all funds for its own priorities.

At first glance at the table below, it would seem that FIPSE had a good year in 2010, since its total funds grew to $159 million from $134 million in 2009. But as documented by Ben Miller at the think tank Education Sector, there will actually be less money available for the program’s competition this year ($28.8 million) than last year ($30.6 million), and several million dollars less than the Obama administration sought.

Lawmakers set aside more than $100 million — $101,507,000, to be exact — for hundreds of projects, mostly at individual colleges and universities. Exactly how some of them fit into the program’s stated goal of "promoting meaningful and lasting solutions to various, often newly emerging, problems and of promoting the highest quality education for all learners" is a bit perplexing. A majority of the project descriptions say the funds will buy equipment, and the single biggest chunk of the money — $13.6 million — will help develop the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the Senate at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, following on another $5.8 million earmarked for the project in 2009.


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