President Donald Trump’s budget proposal would cut funding for several federal programs that help low-income students pay for college, programs higher education leaders in West Virginia said are crucial to students’ ability to pay for school.
Trump’s budget would cut the Department of Education’s funding by $9.2 billion, or roughly 13.5 percent. These cuts rely on eliminating the Federal Supplemental Education Grant and reducing the Federal Work Study program, among other items.
“The problem is, those programs go to our neediest students,” said Brian Weingart, senior director of financial aid for the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission. “It might be the difference in those students going to college and not going to college.”
The proposal Trump unveiled this week would continue funding the Pell Grant program, but would implement a “cancellation” of the $3.9 billion in unallocated carryover funds from it.
Higher education leaders had hoped that, with the extra Pell Grant money, Congress might expand the program to allow students to use the money during the summer months, not just during the fall and spring semesters. The idea is largely supported by Democrats, but House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also recently came out in support of the program’s expansion, according to Inside Higher Ed.
But Weingart said that, if there’s an increase in the number of Pell Grant-eligible students in the future, not having that extra padding could mean fewer students get the award.
Trump’s budget also would cut funding for the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP) from its current $322.8 million level of funding to $219 million. The program gives grant money to states to to help low-income students prepare for and apply to college.
Jessica Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the HEPC, said West Virginia is three years into a seven-year, $21 million GEAR UP grant program, the second grant the state has received. The state program works with 5,410 students across 10 counties, but Kennedy estimates that about 20,000 students will receive services by the time the grant concludes in 2021.
Nationally, students who participate in GEAR UP’s programming enroll in college at a rate of 77.3 percent, nearly 32 percentage points higher than other low-income students, according to the National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.
Not all programs from the Department of Education are cut. Trump’s proposed budget invests $1.4 billion in a school choice program, an idea that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised Thursday.
“Taxpayers deserve to know their dollars are being spent efficiently and effectively,” DeVos said in a news release. “This budget is the first step in investing in education programs that work, and maintaining our Department’s focus on supporting states and school districts in providing an equal opportunity for a quality education to all students.”
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program gives money, which doesn’t have to be repaid, to students who are in the greatest financial need. To be eligible for the award, which ranges from $100 to $4,000, students must qualify for the Pell Grant.
Weingart said the FSEOG, which is awarded to states through a block grant, is supposed to help cover the cost of going to school when the Pell Grant doesn’t. Prioritizing the neediest students, schools, not the government, decide who gets the award and how much they receive.
The program is a matching program, with the federal government providing 75 percent of the funding and the schools supplying the rest.
“It doesn’t make sense to cut these programs,” Weingart said. “They always talk about how colleges should have a ‘skin in the game,’ and with these programs, they have ‘a skin in the game.’”
Of the more than 1.6 million students who received the award in the 2014-15 academic year, the federal government determined that almost half of the student’s families were too poor to contribute anything toward paying for college, data from the Department of Education shows.
In West Virginia, almost 7,500 students received the award last year, equating to almost $6 million in aid, according to Weingart.
The cuts Trump would implement on the Federal Work Study program are not significantly laid out in his proposal, which only notes that it would be “significantly cut.” Through that program, more than 4,200 students in West Virginia received a total of almost $5.9 million.
Weingart said that if the FSEOG goes away and if work study is significantly cut, students in West Virginia would have to rely on state scholarships and grant programs or turn to student loans. The state’s Promise Scholarship is awarded based on academic performance, not financial need, and there is no discussion in the Legislature to expand the program.
The state’s other main grant program, the Higher Education Grant Program, is based on the financial need of a student. Weingart said its supposed to fill in the gaps between what scholarships needy students receive and their total bill.
“With the HEGP, it’s already being utilized to its fullest,” he said. “There’s not room to expand it.”
All of this comes as the cost of college in the Mountain State might skyrocket. If the Legislature has its way, university funding will see major reductions. Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert recently told the Gazette-Mail that, if the school’s appropriations are cut upward of 20 percent, the school would need to enact a “tremendous” tuition increase.