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Bush’s Budget For Higher Education Called ‘Stingy’ by Senate Democrats

By Judy Holland

Hearst Newspapers -- WASHINGTON

President Bush’s bare-bones budget for higher education would make the federal government’s main college grant program slightly more generous but would slash other student grant and loan programs to pay for it.

Senate Democrats blasted the proposal Monday as stingy, saying it would force students struggling to pay college tuition to fall deeper into debt.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the overall education budget has been cut by $500 million from $56.5 billion in fiscal 2005 to $56 billion in fiscal 2006, which he said was the first cut in an education budget in 10 years.

Kennedy called the president’s budget the “most anti-student, anti-education budget since Republicans tried to abolish the Department of Education” in the first Bush administration.

The president’s proposed 2006 budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 proposes raising the Pell grant maximum scholarship for college students by $100 for each of the next five years, up to $4,550 from $4,050. Pell grants are the government’s largest form of financial aid to help low-income undergraduate students pay for college, assisting more than 5 million students annually.

The grant, which does not have to be repaid, can be used at about 6,000 colleges and universities. Pell grants range from $400 to $4,050, depending on need.

The Bush budget would eliminate four programs: the Perkins loan program, which provides low-interest loans to financially needy students and allows those entering some public service fields such as teaching and police work, to have their loans forgiven, and the Talent Search, Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs, which help low-income middle- and high-school students plan and prepare for college.

It also cuts the LEAP grant, which matches federal funds with state dollars to allow states to award grants to low-income students.

“For families struggling to pay for college, the budget is worse than robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Kennedy told reporters in a conference call. Kennedy said college costs are rising much faster than the $100 annual increase in Pell grants, which “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the president has taken a “meat axe” approach to budget cutting and that the “overall bad exceeds the overall good” in changes to higher education funding. Schumer warned that thousands of college students in New York could lose a significant source of tuition assistance because of a formula change in Pell grants that will tighten eligibility requirements.