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Need-based and merit-based grants for undergrads slated for elimination

Federal aid for college is being cut by leaps and bounds – or rather, by LEAP and Byrd.  In his budget request for fiscal year 2012, President Obama has proposed eliminating a number of education programs, including the need-based Leveraging Educational Assistance Partnership (LEAP) and the merit-based Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship programs.  However, the end may come early for these programs.  The compromise budget bill for the remainder of fiscal year 2011, expected to be passed by Congress imminently, eliminates both programs.

LEAP, which provides states with money for need-based aid for undergraduates, has already been effectively cut by one of the short-term spending bills signed by President Obama last month.  That was temporary, but passage of either the 2011 compromise bill or the 2012 budget request will make this permanent.  

LEAP functioned as an incentive for states to provide need-based grants to students, requiring states to match aid provided by the federal government.  According to the Department of Education, the program is no longer needed.  Additionally, the New America Foundation reports that some states award little or no need-based aid other than the amount necessary to meet LEAP requirements.  Without federal incentives, these programs will likely be abandoned altogether, especially given the current crises and cuts in state budgets.

Through Byrd scholarships, the Department of Education provides funds to states to annually provide merit scholarships of $1,500 each to top high school seniors.  Last year, the program received $42 million and was able to fund 28,000 scholarships.  Still, the Department of Education states that the program does not really improve college access or completions because it targets students who are already likely to attend and succeed in college, and it awards a relatively small amount.  While $1,500 a year can make a difference in the ability to obtain a higher education, the Byrd scholarship appears to have run its course.

Another notable program receiving cuts is the need-based Federal Pell Grant.  Congress’ 2011 budget compromise bill will eliminate the ability to obtain two grants per year, limiting funding for students to enroll in summer classes.  However, for 2012, there are various proposals for a long-term solution that balances the program’s effectiveness with its increasing costs.  We’ll continue to track the changes being proposed and adopted regarding Pell Grants.

Debates over higher education funding and debt relief programs will not end with the passage of a federal budget.  The only certainties are costs for higher education will continue to increase and students will continue to need funding.  Updates are posted regularly on our website, so remember to check back regularly and often.



This is a post from Radhika Singh Miller, Program Manager, Educational Debt Relief and Outreach.

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