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Higher Education Opportunity Act: Understanding Authorization versus Appropriations Funding Levels

The Department of Education recently posted a 219-page document summarizing the various provisions included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA).  While there are many grant programs relevant to EDUCAUSE community members, it is important to remember that these are authorizations, not appropriations.

Specifically, the Department writes that “only the following three [programs] are funded at this time: (1) Promoting Post Baccalaureate Opportunities for Hispanic Americans; (2) Master’s Degree Programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and (3) Master’s Degree Programs at Predominantly Black Institutions. The other new programs cannot be implemented until funding is provided.”

When Congress authorizes a program, they are basically giving permission to allot funding for that program.  However, this is NOT to be confused with actually appropriating funding (providing the money itself). 

In many ways, it is safe politically to support “authorizing programs” because it does not cost a thing and wins favor with your constituents.  However, reality enters the picture when the budget comes out, and the Appropriations Committee realizes it only has so much money to spend.  Consequently, authorized programs with inflated funding levels are either chopped or reduced. 

For example, there is often a criticism that K-12 education is “underfunded.”  This notion stems from the fact that appropriations levels never rise to the authorization levels.  So while Congress may have felt optimistic in setting an authorization level at X, the budget will only allow for Y.  And with that, Congress must deal with a host of very disappointed people.

It is good to remember that authorization does not equal appropriation.  Until the 111th Congress passes the FY09 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill, we will not have a clearer picture of how much funding will be devoted to the various programs authorized in the HEOA. While it may be wise to prepare for both a negative or positive outcome, it is always worthwhile to remind your congressional representative of why a given program is important. The process is not completed until the appropriations bill is signed into law by the President.

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