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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Analysis of STEM Education Funding at the NSF: Trends and Policy Discussion

Heather B. Gonzalez
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy

Federal policymakers have a longstanding interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that dates to at least the 1st Congress. In its contemporary construct, this interest largely focuses on the connection between STEM education and the U.S. science and engineering workforce, which, in turn, is often perceived as instrumental to national security and the U.S. economy.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a key component of the federal STEM education effort. Several inventories of the federal STEM education portfolio have highlighted NSF’s important role—both in terms of funding and in the number and breadth of programs. The NSF is also the only federal agency whose primary mission includes supporting education across all fields of science and engineering. As such, funding for STEM education at the NSF impacts not only the agency, but also the entire federal STEM education effort.

Congress reduced enacted funding levels (from the prior year) for NSF’s main education account in both FY2011 and FY2012. Those year-over-year reductions followed several years of varying funding, as well as changes in the distribution of the Foundation budget that reduced funding for the main education account as a percentage of the total NSF budget. For the most part, these changes appear to result from a combination of holding the main education account more-or-less constant while applying most of the Foundation’s FY2003-FY2011 budget growth to the main research account. However, in constant dollar terms, it appears at least some of the increase in funding for research activities during the observed period may have come at the expense of education activities.

It is not clear if these funding changes reflect evolving congressional and Administration policy priorities and an intentional prioritization of research over educational activities at the NSF or if they reflect the cumulative impact of funding decisions made in response to specific conditions in specific fiscal years that happen to have had this effect. Further, the significance of these changes for NSF’s STEM education and research missions—and for the overall federal STEM effort— depends, in part, on how they fit within the broader policy context. In particular, it depends (among other things) on how policymakers perceive and assess the policy rationale behind STEM education funding at the NSF; the character of NSF’s STEM education activities; the Foundation’s role in the federal STEM education portfolio; and the impact of changes in NSF’s education account on the Foundation’s other primary mission, research.

This report analyzes NSF funding trends and selected closely related STEM education policy issues in order to place conversations about FY2013 funding in broader fiscal and policy context. It concludes with an analysis of potential policy options.

Date of Report: April 9, 2012
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: R42470
Price: $29.95

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Federal Pell Grant Program of the Higher Education Act: How the Program Works, Recent Legislative Changes, and Current Issues

Shannon M. Mahan
Specialist in Education Policy

The federal Pell Grant program, authorized by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA; P.L. 89-329), is the single largest source of federal grant aid supporting postsecondary education students. The program is estimated to have provided over $35.7 billion to approximately 9.7 million undergraduate students in FY2011. For FY2012, the total maximum Pell Grant was funded at $5,550. The program is funded primarily through annual discretionary appropriations, although in recent years mandatory appropriations have played a smaller yet increasing role in the program. The statutory authority for the Pell Grant program was most recently reauthorized by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA; P.L. 110-315).

Pell Grants are need-based aid that is intended to be the foundation for all federal student aid awarded to undergraduates. There is no absolute income threshold that determines who is eligible or ineligible for Pell Grants. Nevertheless, Pell Grant recipients are primarily low-income. In FY2010, an estimated 74% of all Pell Grant recipients had a total family income at or below $30,000.

The Pell Grant program has garnered considerable attention over the past several years in Congress, primarily due to the ongoing need for additional program funding from FY2009 to FY2011. The need for additional funding during this time period was driven by both anticipated and unanticipated cost increases in the program. Some of the factors contributing to these increased costs included (1) legislative changes enacted in FY2009 and prior years that led to increased benefits for more students; (2) increases in the number of students enrolling in college and applying for Pell Grant aid; and (3) a weakened economy. Congress responded to these funding needs through numerous legislative efforts in FY2010 through FY2011 by providing additional mandatory funding to augment discretionary funding for current and future years. This additional mandatory funding was offset by reductions in spending on the federal student loan programs and changes to the Pell Grant program’s eligibility and award rules.

Most recently, the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 112-74) provided $22.8 billion in discretionary funding for the program in FY2012 and an additional $3.1 billion in mandatory funds for general use in the program from FY2012 to FY2021, of which $612 million is available beginning in FY2012. These mandatory funds were offset by changes also included in the FY2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act to federal student aid programs in the HEA that are scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2012.

Some of the issues concerning the Pell Grant program that may confront this session of Congress center on appropriate satisfactory academic progress measures for students who receive Pell Grant aid and outcome measures for both students and institutions that receive Pell Grant aid. While the funding needs of the program appear to be met for FY2013 due to advance mandatory appropriations and other changes, Congress may begin to consider the implications of additional funding needs in FY2014, when advance mandatory appropriations to augment discretionary appropriations are substantially less than in FY2013. Finally, Congress may also continue to consider ways to decrease future program costs by changing the distribution of overall benefits by targeting aid to the most needy students or by revising the program’s award rules and eligibility parameters.

Date of Report: March
27, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R4244
Price: $29.95

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Document available via e-mail as a pdf file or in paper form.
To order, e-mail Penny Hill Press or call us at 301-253-0881. Provide a Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover card number, expiration date, and name on the card. Indicate whether you want e-mail or postal delivery. Phone orders are preferred and receive priority processing.