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On Thursday, November 17, Congress passed and sent the president the fiscal 2012 spending bills for Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development. Attached to this so-called “minibus” (as opposed to an all-inclusive omnibus appropriations bill) was a provision to keep the rest of the federal government operating on a continuing resolution that will run through December 16.

The bill includes funding for several research agencies of interest to colleges and universities. Appropriators by and large maintained a strong commitment to research and innovation:

  • For FY12, Congress has level-funded the Agriculture Food Research Initiative at the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, with a budget of $264.47 million. 
  • The National Science Foundation will have a budget of $7 billion for FY12, which is an increase of $173 million over FY11. This includes $5.7 billion for Research and Related Activities, $167 million for Major Research and Facilities Construction, and $829 million for Education and Human Resources.
  • NASA will have a budget of $17.8 billion and the Science Mission Directorate will see an increase of $155 million above the FY11 level, with funding set at $5.09 billion.
  • The National Institutes of Standards and Technology was budgeted a 12 percent increase over FY11 to $567 million. 
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will receive a 7 percent increase and is funded at $4.9 billion in FY12.
  • The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will be funded at $4.5 million, which is a significant cut from the FY11 level of $6.6 million.

Appropriators, however, are struggling with many outstanding issues in the as yet uncompleted nine remaining FY12 budget bills. Congressional leaders are hoping to sort out their differences by December 16 so as not to drag the FY12 spending debate into January or later. Progress could be delayed by a number of contentious issues, ranging from efforts to reduce foreign aid to limiting the scope and reach of both the health care reform and financial regulatory reform laws. Another significant point of contention among budget negotiators is funding for the federal Pell Grant program.
In September, Senate appropriators passed a measure protecting the $5,550 maximum Pell Grant award, but found the funding to do so by eliminating the subsidy on interest accrued during the six-month grace period on undergraduate loans. However, a House budget rule prevents Congress from using this offset and negotiators are looking for new ways to try to protect the maximum award while at the same time covering a $1.3 billion shortfall in the Pell Grant program.

House appropriators released draft legislation earlier this fall that would also protect the $5,550 maximum award, but it calls for several programmatic changes:

  • Eliminate eligibility for less than half-time students.
  • Eliminate eligibility for awards that are less than $555.
  • Reduce Pell use from 18 semesters to 12 starting July 1, 2012.
  • Reduce zero Expected Family Contribution from $30,000 to $15,000.
  • Expand the definition of “untaxed income” to include five items that are currently not included as income:
    • the amount of additional tax credit claimed for tax purposes;
    • welfare benefits;
    • earned income credit claimed for tax purposes;
    • credit from tax paid on special fuels; and
    • untaxed social security benefits.

NACUBO is working together with other higher education associations to send the message to Congress that the Pell Grant award should be reliable and predictable. If you have not already done so, NACUBO encourages you to support the Student Aid Alliance, a coalition of higher education organizations that includes NACUBO, in a campaign to protect federal student aid, by signing their statement— which now has over 100,000 supporters.


Liz Clark

Vice President, Policy and Research


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