WASHINGTON — 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."