Sequester Threatens University Research Funding And Federal Student Aid

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12:  U.S. President Barack Obama's motorcade makes it way down Pennsylvania  Avenue toward the U.S.
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 12: U.S. President Barack Obama's motorcade makes it way down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the U.S. Capitol on February 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Facing a divided Congress, Obama is expected to focus his speech on new initiatives designed to stimulate the U.S. economy. (Photo by Drew Angerer-Pool/Getty Images)

The impending federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which will go into effect on Friday without action by Congress, are poised to have a significantly negative effect on both public and private universities nationwide. Some forms of federal student aid and funding for a variety of research programs are likely to find themselves on the chopping block, according to the White House and university administrators.

Several critical revenue streams for universities are at risk: The National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities are all subject to cuts that fall within both the 7.6 percent cut to mandatory spending and the 8.2 percent cut to discretionary spending.

Students' tuition rates won't go up, and Pell Grants are protected; but the federal work-study program and other scholarship sources, like the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, would be subject to the 8.2 percent cut.

Some examples of how that breaks down, according to the White House: 4,720 low-income students in Texas would lose federal financial aid; an estimated 2,370 college students in Iowa will lose federal college aid; 4,520 low-income college students in New York would lose money; 6,250 Florida low-income students and 9,600 in California would get hit.

A total of about 280,000 students could lose federal support to pay for college as a result of the sequester, according to a NerdScholar analysis.

A White House fact sheet issued on Feb. 8 estimated that "several thousand researchers could lose their jobs," and the National Science Foundation would issue nearly 1,000 fewer research grants. The White House warned some projects with reduced funding would "need to be cancelled, putting prior year investments at risk."

"Sequestration is a reckless and blunt tool," Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "It would have severe, long-term impacts that would put our nation at an extreme disadvantage for years to come."

With the loss of these federal grants, undergraduate research assistants would likely be the first to get cut, University of Washington vice provost for research Mary Lidstrom told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

That has Harvard Medical School executive dean of research William W. Chin worried. Chin warned earlier this month at a rally that "a generation of scientists could be lost in a period of profound funding reduction."

Although Harvard University has the largest endowment by far, they depend on federal dollars for 60 percent of research funding. With the sequester looming and after years of flat funding, Harvard has already begun to scale back its research, the Crimson reports.

"The bottom line for us is that there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what will happen if sequestration goes into effect," Harvard provost Alan M. Garber told the Crimson. "We expect, regardless of whether Congress averts the fiscal cliff or not, that there will be serious long-term cuts in research spending, in real terms and in nominal terms."

For public universities already dealing with years of declining state financial support, these cuts represent huge sums of money, and it's unlikely that schools will be able to compensate for the shortfall that results from the sequester.

Because it's unclear how the research cuts would play out and which initiatives would actually lose money, school officials can only speculate as to its consequences. What they do know: People working in their labs will be sent home, and that will have a ripple effect for both the science and the economy.

Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates the overall economic cost from cutting federal research spending would be between $203 billion and $860 billion over the next nine years.

For example, a report from the Arizona Board of Regents found the state's three public universities generated more than $1 billion in economic activity last year alone as a result of their research.

"Faculty bring in grants. They hire people. Those people buy houses and shop for groceries, and so on," University of Arizona senior vice president for research Dr. Leslie Tolbert told KOLD. "The impact is the creation of a research industry really within the university. So the impact on jobs, on workforce is going to be significant."