October 14, 2012

Federal Inaction Could Hurt Cornell Research, Financial Aid

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In the face of a divided Congress failing to agree on how best to cut the country’s deficit, University administrators are monitoring Capitol Hill for signs that the government will default to a sequester: across-the-board budget cuts that could slash funding for Cornell’s federally-supported research and financial aid by 8.5 percent, effective next year.

The quandary stems from the Budget Control Act, which states that, to compensate for the U.S. raising its debt ceiling, Congress must reduce its deficit through a mixture of increasing revenue and cutting the federal budget, according to Dianne Miller, director of federal relations at Cornell. If Congress does not agree on an alternate budget to reduce the country’s deficit by $1.2 trillion before the end of the year, the sequester will take effect on Jan. 2, 2013 — possibly imperiling several Cornell programs.

Among the government agencies that could be affected is the National Science Foundation, which, in Fiscal Year 2010, gave Cornell $141.9 million — 30.8 percent of its total research funding — according to Cornell’s website. According to Miller, if the budget cuts are approved, “maintaining the current level that [Cornell’s laboratories] have will be much more difficult.”

“Our scientists are very good at obtaining funding, but [if the sequester is implemented], there would be fewer opportunities and less money to compete for,” Miller said.

The cuts could also potentially slash millions of dollars in financial aid grants for Cornell, such as the government’s Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant — a federal grant program that provides additional aid to undergraduate students who demonstrate “exceptional need” for aid, according to the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment website.

While the cuts, if they go into effect, would affect Cornell students starting in Fall 2013, Tom Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis, said that the University “will probably pick up that funding source.”

“We put over $220 million into our financial aid program, so if were to lose a million or two million dollars for the [Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant] program, that’s a problem, but it’s not a huge problem,” he said. “It means the University has to make priorities.”

Keane said that Cornell is “unlikely to turn to students to cover” any federal shortfall in funds for FSEOG.

Another program potentially at risk is Federal Work Study, which provides part-time employment to students to help pay for their educational expenses, according to the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment’s website. In the 2009-10 academic year, FWS-eligible students earned nearly $3 million working on campus, the website states.

Keane, however, expressed skepticism that Congress will fail to come to a compromise on the budget to prevent the sequester from taking effect. He also said he doubts that the FWS program’s funding will be cut, since many political candidates in the current election season are advocating policies that promote employment.

“All [political] parties … are talking about getting America back to work, so it would be really surprising to see anybody suggest the work-study program not get funded,” Keane said.

Miller said that, although groups have pressured Congress to maintain current funding levels for federal programs, final decisions on the budget will not be made until after the presidential election. The wait has left groups that rely on federal funding in a “holding pattern, waiting to see what is going to come out,” she said.

Keane echoed Miller’s sentiments, adding that, once the election is over, he hopes Congress will return to Capitol Hill to help balance the budget, which would prevent the 8.5 percent across-the-board cuts that remain a possibility.

In the meantime, though, Keane said he is “going to worry about the 14,000 [undergraduates] that are here and not worry about something I can’t control in Washington.”

One professor who receives federal funding for his research, Prof. Peter Enns, government, said he hopes that, since the proposed, across-the-board budget cuts would affect multiple federal agencies, Congress will come to a compromise to avoid the sequester.

The cuts, if approved, will have “widespread implications in a lot of domains — but that also makes it more likely that there will be a postponement or agreement [on the budget] of some sort,” Enns said.

Although he expects to hear back from the National Science Foundation about renewing his research funding before a sequester would be enacted, Enns said he has already adjusted his grant proposal in light of the possibility of budget cuts, in the hopes of maximizing the chances that his request will be approved.

“In proposing my budget, I was very conscious to request only what was necessary,” he said.

As administrators and professors wait to see how Congress will decide to balance the budget, Miller expressed frustration at the possibility that Congress, in an effort to chip away at the country’s deficit, might turn to a sequester.

“[The sequester is] a blunt instrument to get at a real problem, which is balancing the budget, but it takes away the ability to make decisions about priorities,” Miller said.

Original Author: Caroline Flax