Should Trump take Pell Grant money for NASA’s moonshot? Outraged education advocates say no

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Chris Quintana

USA TODAY

Published 3:14 PM EDT May 15, 2019

The Trump administration wants money meant for low-income college students shifted to help cover the bill for a NASA moonshot by 2024.

Hold up, say outraged education advocates, who fear moving funds from Pell Grants to space exploration could ratchet up college costs and send a message that the president doesn’t value helping poor students pay for school. 

“Most of your readers would wonder: Do I want to make college more expensive to fund space travel to the Moon and to Mars,” said Jon Fansmith, director of government and public affairs with the American Council on Education, a university association group.

The administration proposed a budget amendment earlier this week that would transfer nearly $4 billion from a surplus in the Pell Grant program, which is meant to help low-income students pay for college.

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The transfer wouldn’t affect students currently benefiting from the Pell Grant program, and the administration expects it to have “sufficient discretionary funds until 2023,” according to language in the budget amendment.  

The Pell Grant program is currently running a surplus of nearly $9 billion, according to  the Associated Press. And the transfer would also still need to be approved by Congress.

As part of the administration budget amendment, NASA would get $1.6 billion in addition to the $21 billion the administration proposed in its 2020 budget request for the year beginning in October. President Donald Trump said in a Tweet the goal was to get America back to “Space in a BIG WAY!” 

Pell Grants are awarded to undergraduates who wouldn’t be able to afford college otherwise. Unlike loans, the federal government doesn’t require the grants be paid back. The amount given varies on the level of a student’s need and the cost of the college or university they attend, but the maximum for the upcoming school year is $6,195.

About one in three undergraduate students receive a Pell Grant, but the percentage of students benefiting from the award has fallen in recent years, according to data analyzed by the Collegeboard. The maximum amount a student is eligible to receive has also increased in recent years. 

Many on Twitter expressed outrage over the idea of encroaching on the Pell Grant program while sharing stories of how the money made it possible for them to obtain their education. 

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Democratic lawmakers also criticized the plan, which casts doubt on the likelihood of the proposed amendment’s adoption. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the head of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees education, called the bill “dead on arrival.” 

“President Trump and his team should stop wasting their time on theatrics,” she said in a statement. “Instead, I will continue do my job governing and funding critical programs that help people in every stage of their life.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pushed back against the plan by saying many students are forgoing essentials to pay for college already.

Rep. Steve Cohen, D- Tenn, also said on Twitter that he was for funding NASA but not at the expense of Pell Grants. 

The move is short-sighted, Fansmith said. About a decade ago during the recession, the number of students who took advantage of Pell Grants shot up as people returned to college rather than looking for work in a bad economy. That led to a strain on the program, which then affected the number of people who could take advantage of it. 

The economy is doing well now, Fansmith said, but drawing from the program could weaken its ability to handle an economic downturn. 

Other advocates questioned diverting money intended for student aid to completely unrelated projects. Tamara Hiler, deputy director of education at the left-leaning think tank Third Way, said the administration could find other places in the budget to fund NASA. 

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What’s more, she said, the ongoing effects of increasing tuition costs and inflation will likely mean a continued drain on the surplus. 

“It’s just more important that we keep that reserve intact as much as possible given that we know more people are going to be going into higher education because we know that’s what the job market is demanding,” Hiler said.

The Ed Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on low-income and students of color, in a statement not only urged Congress to reject the president’s proposal, but also to double the current Pell Grant award while restoring a measure that would automatically increase the award to match inflation. 

Others are less sure the plan would spell disaster for low-income students. It would be hard to know whether the move would affect the funding of Pell Grants, said Jason Delisle, a fellow who studies higher education financing at the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute.

“If the maximum grant is going up and the surplus is going down, maybe they aren’t really related,” Delisle said. “Whatever bad thing people said is supposed to happen, where is it?”

Contributing: Ledyard King

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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