AUGUSTA, Maine — Congress’ failure so far to pass an education appropriations bill, which contains funding for Pell grants, has raised concerns among higher education officials in Maine.
The Pell Grant Program is a component of federal financial aid for education and helps thousands of Mainers attend schools in the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.
“If [Congress doesn’t] address it,” said John Fitzsimmons, president of the community college system, “it will have a very adverse impact on our students. Seventy-six percent of our students are on financial aid and 54 percent receive Pell, and Pell usually covers 100 percent of community college tuition and fees.”
He said educational institutions across the country are concerned about the potential impact. It’s estimated that nearly 9 million students would see their grant cut by more than 15 percent if Congress fails to act.
University System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude said he shares the concern that congressional inaction could hurt students. He said Pell grants have become a political football for some in Congress.
“There has been a spectacular rise in Pell grant dollars in the last two years, a total of a $12 billion increase. These increased Pell grants have made an enormous difference,” Pattenaude said.
He said school and college administrators across the country are hoping Congress acts in the session that gets under way this week and does not wait for the incoming Congress to consider the measure in January.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the failure to pass an education appropriations bill is only one failure of Congress this year. Not a single spending bill has made it through both the House and Senate with spending allowed though a continuing resolution, she said, not an appropriations bill for the federal budget year that started Oct. 1.
“We have to work through the appropriations bills and do it however long it takes and get the job done,” she said. “That’s what we were elected to do.”
Snowe said she is very upset congressional leaders are talking about extending the current continuing resolution that runs out Dec. 1 until some date in February.
U.S. 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said it might well be that Congress cannot get all of the spending bills done before they break sometime next month. But, she said, they certainly should give priority to measures like the education budget.
“If there is anything we should emphasize in this country and certainly in the state of Maine, [it] is making sure everyone can advance their education,” she said. “Every dollar we can provide in aid really helps.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the shortage of funding for the grants would not mean fewer students will be served, but it will mean each student gets less aid.
“That is still a problem because these grants go to our neediest students,” she said. “This should be taken care of during the appropriations process.”
Collins, who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the funding bills should have been approved last summer, long before the break for the elections.
U.S. 2nd District Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said the lack of spending bills being approved shows a serious lack of leadership in Congress. He said Democrats need to accept their share of the blame, as do Republicans in both the House and Senate.
“We can’t continue with this partisan gridlock,” he said. “We have to work in a bipartisan manner to address these very serious issues facing our country.”
Michaud said he is particularly critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying she has had one of the most divisive leadership styles in Congress and that has contributed to the delay in passing the appropriations bills.
For the current federal budget year, the Pell Grant Program is facing a roughly $5.7 billion shortfall. That will cut the $5,550-a-year maximum for a full-time student by about $845. In 2009, there were 7.7 million Pell grants; this year there are about 8.7 million.
Fitzsimmons said any cut could result in students dropping out because they do not have enough cash to make up the loss.
“We have had students leave school because they do not have the $100 to fix their car,” he said. “We need to keep these students in school once they start.”
He said the community colleges have an emergency loan fund they use to help students through financial emergencies.