Wait and See

Time is running out for the "super committee," the 12-member bipartisan panel charged with reducing the U.S. government’s deficit by $1.2 trillion before Thanksgiving. Deliberations remain secretive, with even some members of Congress complaining that the group should be more transparent. With the fate of many higher education and other domestic programs potentially at stake, higher education’s supporters in Washington say they are concerned but uncertain how much they can influence this debate.

Any deficit reduction agreement could have consequences for higher education programs, including Pell Grants, federally subsidized student loans, funding for scientific research and the many smaller federal programs on which colleges and universities depend. Tax credits and deductions that benefit colleges, students and their families could also be cut, including tuition tax credits, deductions for charitable contributions (including to colleges), or the tax deferrals for college savings plans.

If the committee fails to reach an agreement — a possibility that some observers say is increasingly likely, given the partisan gridlock in Washington — the consequences, across-the-board spending cuts to domestic discretionary spending, could be equally damaging.

The super committee is intended to deal with mandatory spending, including some entitlements, and taxes — not the details of the domestic discretionary programs that make up just 15 percent of the overall federal budget but include almost all of the money for higher education and research. Still, the growing Pell Grant Program, which includes both discretionary and mandatory spending, is said to be one of the super committee’s prospective targets. Federally subsidized student loans, a $40 billion mandatory spending program, are another tempting source of savings. And the committee could always choose to cap discretionary spending, squeezing Education Department budgets and money for science agencies, and affecting many higher education programs for years in the future.

“We’re deeply concerned about possible changes to federal support for student and and scientific research,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, describing the concern as a “very generalized anxiety, not specific, verifiable threats.”

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