Washington Watch: Good news in final funding bill

Congress has agreed to a 2,232-page, Fiscal year 2018 (FY18) omnibus appropriations bill that increases funding for nearly every program of significance to community colleges, many by substantial amounts.

The bill, which funds every federal department, allocates the increased resources that Congress approved in a February budget deal. This includes $63 billion on top of previous budget caps for non-defense discretionary programs, for a total of $579 billion.

Overall, the U.S. Education Department’s (ED) funding increased to $70.9 billion, $3.9 billion (5.8 percent) more than last year. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) saw a more modest 1.6-percent bump. The stunningly positive news contained in this bills reinforces the fact that broad budget decisions directly impact the programs on which our students and colleges rely.

The bill doesn’t contain any provisions to extend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had been the subject of some negotiations.

Pell surplus provides room

The bill’s biggest highlight is a $175 increase in the Pell Grant maximum award, to $6,095. This goes well beyond the $100 increase contained in Senate legislation, and even beats inflation.

Congress achieved this increase by using a portion of the program’s current surplus, which was otherwise left intact. House and Senate education and labor appropriation bills both called to rescind approximately $3 billion from the Pell surplus to fund other priorities. With the additional funding provided by the budget deal, however, appropriators could fund other programs without tapping the Pell surplus.

Good news for other ED programs, too

Most other ED programs of interest to community colleges also fared very well. Many Higher Education Act (HEA) programs, including the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Work Study, Title III-A Strengthening Institutions programs, the Title III minority-serving institutions programs, and the Title V Hispanic-Serving Institutions program were increased by approximately 14 percent.

The Child Care Access Means Parents in School program, proposed for elimination in the Trump administration’s original FY18 budget, received the $50 million that the administration subsequently requested in its FY18 budget addendum. This is a whopping 230 percent increase over its current $15 million funding level for a program that the American Association of Community Colleges highlighted in its advocacy.

Perkins Career and Technical Education state grants and adult basic education will see increases of 6.7 percent (to $1.193 billion) and 5.9 percent (to $631 million), respectively. The Trio programs and GEAR-UP received more modest increases of $60 million (6.3 percent) and $10 million (2.9 percent ). HEA Title VI international education programs were level-funded.

Increases for workforce training

Most DOL workforce education programs experienced modest increases, with the exception of apprenticeship grants, which would increase from $95 million to $145 million. The three major formula grants authorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act would rise a total of $80 million (2.9 percent), $30 million each for the low-income adult and youth funding streams, and $20 million for dislocated workers.

Quick turnaround

The House passed the bill on Thursday, and Senate did so early Friday morning, averting another federal government shutdown. It now goes to the president, who is expected to sign the bill.

The legislation caps a tumultuous FY18 budget process that required five temporary bills to keep the government open since the beginning of the fiscal year last October 1.

Since the budget deal also provided additional funds for FY 19, many expect the appropriations process for the coming year to go more smoothly.

About the Author

Jim Hermes
Jim Hermes is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.