It started out as a precarious year for the Pell Grant program and it looks like the year will end that way too. Despite media reports to the contrary, Congress just left town without providing any funding for the program in the 2011-12 school year. Congressional staff and the news media have done a major disservice to students and parents by claiming that the program is now in the clear. Here’s why:
Pell Grants are funded mostly through the annual appropriations process, which is supposed to be completed by the time the fiscal year starts on October 1st. This deadline is rarely met, so Congress funds programs subject to appropriations a few weeks or months at a time at the prior year’s levels until it can pass a year-long funding bill. Congress still has not passed a year-long funding bill for fiscal year 2011, which started months ago. The “continuing resolution” lawmakers passed last night temporarily funds programs through March 4th, 2011, and the new Congress that arrives in Washington in January will get the final say on fiscal year 2011 funding.
It’s a mistake to assume that the new Congress won’t cut funding for any number of programs – including Pell Grants – when it finalizes 2011 spending. Consider that House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) has vowed to take appropriations funding back to 2008 levels – about 15 percent below this year’s levels.
But what about the media reports and congressional press releases claiming 2011 Pell Grant funding and a $5,550 grant is in the bag? The timing just doesn’t add up. The fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill will finance the Pell Grants that students get in the 2011-12 school year. But the temporary continuing resolution now in place expires on March 4th, 2011, five months before the first Pell Grant will be awarded for the 2011-12 school year. To be sure, the temporary appropriations bill does provide funding for a maximum Pell Grant of $5,550 for the 2011-12 school year. But it doesn’t matter. Every cent of that funding expires before the school year even starts and before any of it can be spent.
Parents, schools, and students needn’t worry about the Pell Grants awarded for the current school year though. Grants for the 2010-11 school year are overfunded by $7 billion dollars thanks to a one-time infusion of cash from the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act that Congress passed back in March.
Now all eyes are on the new Congress and how it will fund the Pell Grant program for the 2011-12 academic year. If House Republicans are serious about cutting spending when they finalize fiscal year 2011 appropriations early next year, Pell Grants certainly aren’t the place to start.