Spending Bill Funds Max Pell, Provides Modest Increase to Some Programs

By NASFAA Policy & Federal Relations Staff  

On Tuesday evening, appropriators from both chambers of Congress averted a government shutdown by releasing an omnibus appropriations bill to fund the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2015, which funds most of the federal student aid programs for award year 2015-16.

The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, also given the moniker “cromnibus”, combines 11 appropriations bills into one, along with a continuing resolution (CR) for the Department of Homeland Security. Given the fiscal environment of austerity and sequestration, the federal student aid programs fared relatively well in the bill, with some programs even receiving modest increases. In addition, the spending package partially re-instates the ability to benefit option, a provision that was eliminated just a few short years ago in the final FY 2012 spending bill.

As has been the case over the past several years, the omnibus shows Congress’ commitment to funding the maximum Pell Grant. The bill establishes the discretionary portion of the maximum award at $4,860. The chart below shows that when combined with the scheduled mandatory Pell add-on of $970, the total maximum award for the 2015-16 award year is expected to be $5,850, a $120 increase over the 2014-15 amount. It is important to remember, however, that only the Department of Education (ED) can provide the official maximum award amount, which will be done when they release Pell schedules on or around February 1, 2015.

Congressional commitment to Pell has been questioned however since latest numbers indicate $303 million decrease in overall discretionary Pell funding. That $303 million decrease will not affect 2015-16 award year funding since it was taken from the estimated $4 billion Pell surplus to help fund the not-for-profit (NFP) servicers. In last year’s Bipartisan Budget Act the NFP servicers lost their mandatory funding. Pell’s surplus can be carried over from one year to another, so while the program is currently on stable footing, the money taken from the surplus in this budget cycle could ultimately prove problematic in the future if and when Pell has another shortfall. 

Program  FY13  FY14  FY15  FY15 v. FY14 
Pell Grant (discretionary) $22,778, 352,000 $22,778,352,000 $22,475,352,000 -$303, 000,000 
Pell Grant maximum award $5,645 $5,730 $5,850* +$120*

*Denotes numbers on the chart that were updated on December 15, 2014 based on newly released funding tables from the Department of Education. 

In addition, while the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) and GEAR UP programs were level funded, the spending package provided modest increases to the Federal Work-Study and TRIO programs, giving an additional $15 million to FWS and $1.5 million to TRIO. These are small, but welcome boosts in a time when many programs are receiving cuts.

Program  FY13  FY14  FY15  FY15 v. FY14 
SEOG $696,175,000 $733,130,000 $733,130,000 $0
FWS $925,595,000 $974,728,000 $989,728,000 +$15,000,000
TRIO $795,998,000 $838,252,000 $839,752,000 +$1,500,000
GEAR UP $286,435,000 $301,639,000 $301,639,000 $0 

 

Additional Non-Funding Measures

Foster Youth Self-Identification

The bill also contained a provision directing ED to add a box on the FAFSA for students to self-identify that that they are foster youth or were in the foster-care system. ED must notify self-identified students of their potential eligibility for federal student aid and other federal programs. This provision was also included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014, passed in January 2014, and implementation is scheduled for the 2015-16 FAFSA. As a reminder, this provision does not change the FAFSA dependency status questions or the Title IV eligibility of foster youth or students who were in the foster-care system. 

Partial Ability To Benefit Reinstatement 

Previously a student who enrolled for the first time on or after July 1, 2012, must have had a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent (such as the GED), or must have been home schooled, to receive Title IV aid. The omnibus funding bill reinstates an ability-to-benefit (ATB) alternative to that requirement, allowing students enrolled in certain programs without a high school diploma or GED access to student aid funds, retrospective, starting July 1, 2014. 

However, the bill also contains a Pell Grant limitation for new ATB students beginning July 1, 2015. Students who enroll for the first time on or after July 1, 2015 will only be eligible for the discretionary Pell maximum (currently $4,860) as opposed to the combined discretionary and mandatory Pell maximum, scheduled to be $5,830 for the 2015-16 award year. While this language grandfathers in currently enrolled ATB students who can receive the Pell maximum, it will add some additional complexity for future, newly enrolled ATB students. 

Under the ATB eligibility requirements in the funding bill, the students have to be enrolled in an eligible career pathway program and meet one of the following standards:

  • Achieve a score on an independently administered examination demonstrating that the student can benefit from the education or training being offered. The examination and its administration, and the required score, would have to be approved by ED.
  • Meet a state-designated process that has not been disapproved by ED after taking into account the cultural diversity, economic circumstances, and educational preparation of the populations served by the institutions that utilize the state process.
  • Satisfactorily complete 6 credit hours or the equivalent coursework, applicable toward a degree or certificate offered by the institution making the determination. 

Among other requirements, the bill defines an “eligible career pathway program” as a program that:

  • Concurrently enrolls participants in connected adult education and eligible postsecondary programs; 
  • Provides counseling and supportive services to identify and attain academic and career goals;
  • Provides opportunities for acceleration to attain recognized credentials or degrees; 
  • Is organized to meet the needs of adults;
  • Is aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy;
  • Has been developed and implemented in collaboration with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development. 

With insufficient time to act on the omnibus prior to today’s expiration of the current CR, Congress is expected to pass a short-term CR to buy a few extra days to allow time for voting. 

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