New Federal Budget Plan Favors Higher Education

Feb 02, 2010

The Obama administration demonstrated its commitment to college education this week when the President unveiled his 2011 fiscal budget. In spite of the general spending freeze, most of the higher education and research programs were preserved and some, such as the Pell Grant Program, will actually be increased.

Barack Obama announces 2011 budget plan

Funding Increase For Low-Income Students

In his first State of the Union address, President Obama hailed education as one of the most important investments in America's future. Noting that rising tuition costs put achieving a postsecondary degree out of reach for many Americans, he called on colleges to reduce costs and pledged that the federal government would try to make higher education more accessible.

Obama's recently released proposal for the fiscal year 2011 federal budget demonstrates that he's serious about that commitment. In spite of the general federal spending freeze slashing many departments' financing, this budget preserves current expenditures on most education funding programs. Even better, the budget gives the Pell Grant Program a significant influx of cash, adding over $7.8 billion to the low-income student grant pool. This increase should raise the maximum annual Pell Grant from its current $5,550 to $5,710. The budget also proposes that the Pell Grant be made a federal entitlement, as this would protect it in the long run from the ups and downs of the Congressional appropriations process.

Howard University

Other programs increased include funding to developing institutions such as tribal and historically black colleges, as well as adult education direct funding and federally-funded vocational education state grants.

The education community has responded well to the budget announcement. Robert Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), released a prepared statement commending Obama and declaring that the budget underscores the President's conviction that 'the nation's investments in the people and ideas that lead to discovery and inovation are critical to short-term economic recovery and...long-term economic prosperity.'

The 2011 budget proposal also increases the funding for several major scientific research agencies in order to create jobs. This will also benefit higher education as many of these organizations provide grants and support for institutional research. Higher education-related fiscal year 2011 budget highlights include:

Program or Agency Percent Change: FY 2010 to FY 2011
Pell Grant Program +29.2%
Federal Work Study 0%
Supplemental Grants 0%
Academic Competitiveness and Smart Grants -100%
Perkins Loan Program 0%
Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership -100%
Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need 0%
National Institutes of Health +3.2%
National Science Foundation +8.0%
Energy Department - office of science +4.4%
National Endowment for the Humanities -3.7%
National Endowment for the Arts -3.7%

The Pell Grant Program isn't the only big winner in education. Community colleges may also see an increase in funding under the American Graduation Initiative, which will allocate $10.6 billion to two-year colleges across the country in an effort to educate and strengthen America's workforce. The AGI calls for five million additional graduates of community colleges by 2020, as well as including several initiatives for modernizing facilities, adding online learning opportunities and increasing the effectiveness of community college programs. Obama proposed the AGI last summer, and it passed the House in the fall of 2009. The education community is now awaiting the bill's passage through the Senate, although many fear that other controversial issues such as healthcare may keep pushing the AGI aside.

Teacher training will also receive additional funding, part of Obama's effort to reform K-12 education through improving America's teachers. The budget adds Teacher and Leader Pathways allocations, as well as state effective teacher grants and direct funding for effective teaching and learning in mathematics and science.

National Endowment for the Humanities

Losing Sight of Humanities

The budget's biggest losers in education were the humanities. As indicated by the table above, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) both suffered a 3.7% cut in their budgets. This reinforces the administration's prioritization of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) over the liberal arts. Although the STEM subjects are important for boosting technology innovation and development, education leaders caution that humanities courses teach essential skills such as critical reading, analytical writing and understanding ethics, culture and other global issues. As a recent study points out, these broad 'liberal arts' skills are precisely what U.S. employers say they find lacking in recent college graduates.

Furthermore, scholars such as Derek Bok, former Harvard president-turned-author, note that there's more to a liberal education than simply preparing students for their vocations. The humanities teach students to be independent thinkers, preparing them to be active participants of a free democracy. Without humanities, colleges and universities are at risk of losing track of their core mission: not just training, but educating students.

Besides, as Berdahl points out in the AAU letter, while the $6 million the administration stands to save by cutting NEH funding could put a big dent in humanities research and education funding, it will hardly be noticed in the federal budget.

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