Students at the University of South Carolina are justifiably proud of the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, one of the largest such facilities on a college campus, which offers activities as varied as rock climbing on a 52-foot indoor wall and sand volleyball.
The 192,000-square-foot center, completed two years ago and named for the late South Carolina senator, is already improving its amenities, thanks to $5 million earmarked in this year's federal education budget. It was one of 418 handouts that members of Congress provided through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
In the past, a number of the program's grants were awarded through competition -- but not this year. The competition was canceled because there was no money left to award: Congress spent the agency's entire grant budget on pet projects.
The 1,300 education innovators who had applied for the 50 to 70 grants awarded each year through the competition were out of luck.
The Bush administration's budget request for the 2006 fiscal year would restore money for a competition, the Education Department said. The House approved the appropriations bill for the department in June, and the Senate is expected to take it up in the next few weeks.
Since its inception in 1973 during the Nixon administration, the program -- known as FIPSE -- has provided grants, typically $100,000 to $600,000, to some of the boldest innovators in education.
It gave money for some of the first distance-learning programs, medical school programs on women's health issues and programs offering access to computers for students with disabilities, among hundreds of others.
The fund also has run exchanges of U.S. college students and faculty members with universities in Mexico, Canada, Brazil and the European Union. The exchanges are required by international agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement.
For the 2005 fiscal year, Congress approved $145 million for earmarks and $17 million to fund the year's portion of previous multiyear grants. Gone was all funding for new grants, including the international programs.
"It's tragic," said David Longanecker, who as assistant secretary of Education in the Clinton administration oversaw the program when congressional earmarks -- the more formal term for pork-barrel projects -- were introduced into the program.
The earmarks began in the 1998 fiscal year -- two of them were inserted into the appropriations legislation with little controversy. But as they grew, it became easier to cut the merit-based programs, said Longanecker, who directs a program that won a grant six years ago.
His organization, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colo., was awarded a grant to develop tutoring, academic advising, personal counseling, career counseling and orientation programs for students taking online classes. Last fall, it submitted two of the 1,300 applications for the competition that ended up being canceled.
Because leaders in education subjected applicants to intense analysis and critique, a project awarded a FIPSE grant was considered prestigious. Multiple applications were sometimes combined in a single grant if staff determined that the projects were compatible.
When a program officer saw similarity between two grant applications in 1987 and asked the scientists to work together, a long-term partnership was started between Priscilla Laws, a physicist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and Ronald K. Thornton, a physicist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. After 18 years, Laws said, "we're still collaborating."
The fund's careful grant management has often served as a signal to private foundations that they should consider funding certain programs.
"When FIPSE comes to us and says they have an idea that they think should be scaled up, that says someone has looked at this. It has met some kind of test of innovation," said Alison R. Bernstein, who started her career at FIPSE and is a vice president at the Ford Foundation.
The staff at FIPSE was rare among the federal bureaucracy. Most grant examiners held doctorates. Many came from academia, and time in the agency was considered a steppingstone to a position as dean or provost.
Yet these days on Capitol Hill, "there almost appears to be an antipathy to expertise," Longanecker said. "There are congressmen who say, 'I know more about what we need in higher education than experts. I know better than what the research shows.' "
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House subcommittee that sets FIPSE's appropriations, expressed similar sentiments this year when he told the Chronicle of Higher Education: "FIPSE doesn't have all the knowledge in the world. The bureaucracy in Washington doesn't always have the last word on what is valuable to society."
The state that got the most money from FIPSE last year was Mississippi, with more than $12 million in a dozen relatively large grants. The state's junior senator, Sen. Thad Cochran, is the second-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health, human services and education.
Pennsylvania -- the home state of the subcommittee's chairman, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter -- got the largest number of earmarks, 58, for a total just less than $12 million. By comparison, California received $8 million in 28 earmarks.
Some money goes to projects that match FIPSE's mission -- to support revolutionary methods of teaching students after high school. Many more help schools purchase equipment, especially computers.
Then there are projects such as Alaska Christian College, which received $431,520 this year after getting $397,640 in 2004.
The school, on the Kenai Peninsula, had 37 students last year. The Education Department said the college saw its mission as "helping Native Alaskan students to improve skills needed to make the transition from local, generally inadequate 'bush' high schools to college-level work."
But the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an advocacy group in Madison, Wis., contends that the school is a Christian mission. In April, the foundation filed suit in federal court to prohibit the Education Department -- which is not allowed to support religious education with federal funds -- from awarding grants to religious programs.
The foundation's claim appears to be bolstered by an Education Department evaluation of the school produced for the litigation. "The first-year students take a common curriculum that is almost entirely religious in nature," the evaluation says. "The president suggested that they just didn't know that earmark funds could not be spent for religious purposes."
The earmarks were inserted by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). "We evaluated the merit of what they do and submitted the request," said Pamela Day, Young's senior legislative assistant.
FIPSE's normal evaluation process would not have approved such an application, several former FIPSE staff members said.
At Mt. San Jacinto Community College in California's Inland Empire, Dean of Student Services Joanna Quejada received a FIPSE grant in 2001 by applying for one through the merit-based contest. She said she had no idea how to get an earmark.
"If there was a way to do that, I'm not aware of it," she said. "If we did, we'd all be in good shape."
Not all California schools missed out on the earmarks. The biggest of the state's 28 grants was $570,400 for the University of San Francisco's Harney Science Center. The Sweetwater Education Foundation in San Diego County received $535,680 toward college scholarships for at-risk students. Cal State Chico, Palo Verde Community College in Blythe, and Touro University in Vallejo each got $496,000.
Longanecker said earmarks proliferated when one party controlled the House, the Senate and the White House. But he said neither party was immune to temptation.
The Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center was the only earmark in 2005 for a project named for a Republican. Four Democrats -- former President Clinton, the late Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, former Rep. John Brademas of Indiana and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York -- were commemorated on campuses around the country with FIPSE earmarks of $1 million or more.