Congress set aside money to help students go to college, but the Trump administration wants to use it for a moon mission

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A Trump administration proposal to use money meant to help low-income students attend college to fund a mission to the moon is facing pushback from colleges, universities and advocates.

The White House sent a budget amendment to Congress earlier this week that would fund a handful of proposals, including a NASA mission to get astronauts to the moon by 2024, by tapping nearly $3.9 billion allocated for the Pell Grant. The proposal was met with swift condemnation from organizations representing colleges and universities, financial-aid administrators and others.

‘This is a really bad way to do policy through the funding process…It’s a signal that this a slush fund that can be tapped for whatever purpose someone wants.’

—Jon Fansmith, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education

“This is a really bad way to do policy through the funding process,” said Jon Fansmith, the director of government relations at the American Council on Education, a trade group representing more than 1,700 college and university presidents. “The money that’s in the Pell account was provided by Congress and the administration for the purposes of helping low-income students afford college,” not fund other priorities, like space exploration, he said.

The proposal is the latest front in an ongoing debate between the Trump administration, some congressional Republicans and college affordability advocates over the so-called “Pell surplus.” Every year, the Pell Grant, the money the government provides to help low-income students attend college, is funded in part through an appropriation from Congress.

When the number of students seeking the Pell Grant turns out to be beyond what Congress appropriated for the program, it creates a reserve or surplus. That balance currently stands at about $7.9 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

College access advocates have argued for years that the surplus should be maintained to protect the fiscal health of the program, and in case the number of students seeking the grant unexpectedly grows. Advocates often describe dipping into the Pell reserves as “raiding it.”

The Trump administration has previously proposed using the Pell surplus to fund other programs. The Office of Management and Budget didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement to the Associated Press, Wesley Denton, an OMB spokesman, defended the proposal. “The budget continues to ensure all students will get their full Pell grant and keeps the program on sound fiscal footing,” he said in a statement.

Even if the Trump administration’s proposal moves forward, students currently in college won’t lose any Pell grant funding, but advocates worry it could put future students at risk.

“The Pell grant is an entitlement where people qualify, but Congress has to estimate and provide funding on a year-to-year basis,” said Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “If we don’t retain our surpluses, when the eventuality comes that we have a shortfall, Congress ends up scrambling to make up the difference.”

One need to look no further than the Great Recession and its aftermath to see how that kind of scrambling plays out, Draeger said. During that time, Pell expenditures more than doubled in just a few years as more students went back to college.

To make up the difference, Congress allocated more funding for the program. But lawmakers also made “opaque” changes to it — like tweaking the formula for how the government determines financial need — that resulted in cuts for students, he said.

Fansmith said the Trump administration’s request to use Pell funds sets a “troubling precedent.”

“It’s a signal that this a slush fund that can be tapped for whatever purpose someone wants,” he said.

Instead of focusing on whether to tap what he calls the Pell grant program’s “rainy day fund,” policymakers should be focused on expanding the grant so that it keeps up with rising college costs and so that more students can take advantage of it, said Reid Setzer, the director of government affairs at the Education Trust, a think tank focused on equity in education.

Policymakers should also consider making funding for the program mandatory so that lawmakers never have to debate about how to find the dollars to help low-income students attend college. “If you’re going to have that philosophical commitment to providing access to every single student in america you should back it budget side as well,” he said.

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