Obama’s education budget: A freeze is good news?

President Obama shared his budget proposal on Monday, and on the surface it appears to be higher ed-friendly. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find some troubling news.

On the financial aid front, the president’s budget preserves the Pell Grant program. That’s the good news, at least in the way reports like this one from the Washington Post put it. (The lede: “President Obama wants a significant jump in education funding to pay for Pell grants for needy college students while also financing his reform agenda for elementary and secondary schools.”)

But keeping the Pell Grant program intact comes at a cost. First of all, the proposal is a freeze of the program. No plans to increase funding. Moreover, as The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, “To maintain a maximum Pell award of $5,550, the president’s fiscal 2012 budget would eliminate the in-school interest subsidy on loans to graduate students and end a policy that allows students to receive two Pell Grants in a single year.”

Why should students gets two Pell Grants in a year anyway? One reason has to do with the way students learn these days. Many aren’t following the traditional September-to-May schedule, as New York Times business columnist David Leonhardt points out in his analysis of Obama’s budget plan pertaining to Pell Grant aid. (Leonhardt’s suggestion that Pell Grants be “tied to academic progress,” rather than the calendar, seems to make sense.)

So, if a freeze of the Pell Grant program is considered good news for higher education, or the best news we can muster, then we’re in for more interesting times. Access and affordability continue to be at risk. (Also coming in to play in the coming months will be the House Republicans’ plan to cut Pell funding by 15 percent.)

Funding for scientific research, so critical to U.S. research universities and our ability to compete globally, seems to have fared well in Obama’s budget, with increases designated for energy research, information technology, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Even so, the exercise of divvying up and distributing the funds will be like trying to spread a teaspoon of butter over a hundred slices of bread. The increases, relative to R&D expenditures of other fast-developing nations in terms of percentage of GDP, will likely be paltry. (I haven’t taken the time to do an analysis on this. I’m just making an educated guess.)

Inside Higher Ed reports that the National Science Foundation and new initiatives to train more teachers in STEM fields are the biggest winners in the Obama budget, while the Department of Defense and Department of Agriculture would both see funding cuts under this scenario.

Here again, defense and agriculture have traditionally received strong support from congress, so it will be interesting to see how their budgets look at the end of the process.

Graduate and vocational education both take a hit in the proposed budget, as does support for the arts and humanities. For details of Obama’s budget for higher education and science, see this chart.

Building a budget is always a game of trade-offs. Unfortunately, education, when up against “non-discretionary” spending like defense and Social Security, doesn’t stand much of a chance. Until those non-discretionary accounts are taken into account, and until our tax structure is corrected to give the vanishing middle class a better chance (even Forbes points that Obama’s proposed tax plan would increase taxes back to the level of the Reagan years), any improvements in the educational agenda for the U.S. will be slight and incremental at best.

As Forbes also points out (without ever mentioning education), “The upcoming debate over that small chunk of non-defense domestic spending that is subject to annual congressional review is healthy and important — and it will get very nasty. But compared to burgeoning entitlements on one hand and tax revenues that remain near historic lows on the other, the fight over 12 percent of the budget is a fiscal sideshow.”

How sad that the nation’s education agenda is seen as merely a tiny act in a fiscal sideshow.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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