By Jenny Smulson, Vice President of Government Relations, AJCU

Five months into the fiscal year, Congress passed, and President Biden signed, the FY22 Consolidated Appropriations Act (HR 2471). This legislation funds the federal government through September 30, 2022. A massive bill, it includes funding for all government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education. The legislation increases spending by $1.5 trillion in defense programs (5.6% over FY21) and non-defense programs (6.7% over FY21), with an additional $13.6 billion in emergency aid dedicated to Ukraine.

After facing significant challenges in resolving largely partisan differences, Congress managed to get the bill over the finish line and over to the President’s desk. Getting this package passed was very important and has significant implications for students and so many people who rely on government-funded programs. In the period between the end of the last fiscal year (September 30, 2021) and March 15, 2022 (when President Biden signed HR 2471), the federal government was operating under a continuing resolution (CR). Under the four CRs that had to be passed to keep the government open, funding was capped at the FY21 levels – those developed and agreed upon during the Trump Administration, which were much lower than those proposed by the Biden Administration. What was the impact on education? It froze funding for key investments in postsecondary access programs that, if left unresolved, would have restricted spending levels for the entire fiscal year.

On May 28, 2021, President Biden proposed a budget that included historic increases for federal education programs. That budget requested a significant boost for the Federal Pell Grant maximum ($400 in appropriated funds and $1,475 through the reconciliation process), as well as other programs (e.g., Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), that are important to K-12 education.

Following on the heels of President Biden’s budget, House and Senate Democrats drafted legislation that also increased spending for such higher education programs as Federal Work Study, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), TRIO, and Pell Grants. The President’s budget and the Democratic spending proposals were welcome news to the education community. Embracing those funding goals, AJCU and other associations began advocating to see those levels enacted. The adoption of the CRs poured some cold water on that joy as it froze funding at the FY21 levels, well below the bold increases proposed for FY22. But it energized advocates like AJCU and other associations to lean on Congress to complete their work on the spending bills.

In the end, a compromise was reached on FY22 funding that resulted in an increase in defense spending beyond what the President had proposed (not surprising given that in that period of time, Russia invaded Ukraine). Boosts for education programs were also adopted, but not at the historic levels first proposed by President Biden. Some of the funding increases had been included in the budget reconciliation package (known as Build Back Better) but, when that bill did not advance, those gains became out of reach. New programs like free community college and college completion grants were also removed from the final appropriations package. But the increases for higher education will benefit current and future students, and AJCU’s advocacy will continue as we stress the importance of federal higher education funding to our nation’s economic health and growth, as well as to individuals and their families.

Making a return after a decades-long hiatus, a version of earmarks is back. Now called “Community Funded Projects” or “Congressionally Directed Spending,” this renewed effort allows nonprofit organizations within a district or state to request support for a specific project of benefit to their communities. Under this practice, institutions of higher education (and associated entities like medical centers) will receive just over $700 million for FY22. These projects must be made public and must demonstrate strong community support (click here for a full list of funded projects included for FY22). Moving forward, this will be another way for colleges and universities to affirm their positive impact on their communities and to seek federal funds to advance such meaningful projects.

Looking ahead, the next few months will be very busy. There’s a lot of work to do and a short time to get it all done. With the delay in completing the FY22 funding proposal, Congress finds itself racing to get started on the FY23 budget and appropriations process. The President unveiled his FY23 budget on Monday, March 28. The budget includes a proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant by $1,775 over the FY22 amount and to double the maximum Pell Grant by 2029 – a consequential request. In addition, it proposes expanding Pell to include Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Current events also influenced the President’s budget: inflation, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine. There will be many competing priorities in the FY23 budget.

To realize those gains for Pell and other student financial aid programs, the higher education community will have to work hard to convince Congress that these investments are of value. By telling the stories of our students, AJCU is confident that we can make Pell a priority for funding in FY23. We take pride in talking about students like Sa’iid Robinson, who is currently in his first year at Marquette University. Growing up in Kenosha, WI, college was merely a dream for Sa’iid. But through perseverance and the help of federal education programs, like SEOG, Sa’iid is getting a great education and will work for a biopharmaceutical company over the summer, setting him on a path toward success. AJCU is excited to highlight our extraordinary #JesuitEducated students and alumni, as we make the case for federal student financial aid.

*The late resolution for the consolidated appropriations bill means that, in some cases, the FY23 Budget includes funding levels below those enacted in FY22 (they are compared to FY21 levels in the Budget Summary). The Administration will not push for funding levels below the enacted levels for FY22.