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Supporters of a federal financial aid program for college students are encouraged by a subcommittee vote in the House of Representatives that would maintain funding for Pell grants over the next school year.

The House subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, chaired by Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., voted this week to fund Pell grants over the upcoming year, reversing last year’s House vote to cut funding to the financial aid program.

Tobin Van Ostern, policy manager for Campus Progress with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., called the subcommittee’s vote an encouraging sign.

“It’s a hugely beneficial program and we’re hoping this is a shift back in the right direction,” Van Ostern said. “It’s a positive step, but it’s a very early step.”

Roughly 19,700 students who attended college in Montana during the 2009-10 school year received a combined $74 million in Pell grants. When looking at students from Montana attending college both in and out of state, more than $87 million was awarded to 23,400 recipients, according to figures provided by Campus Progress.

While the subcommittee’s vote preserves $5,635 in grants per student per year, the Institute for College Access and Success said the amount will cover less than one-third of the projected costs of attending a four-year public college in 2013-14.

It marks the lowest share of college funding in the history of the Pell grant program, the institute said. In the 1980s, by comparison, the program covered more than half the cost of attending college.

Gina Baleria of the Institute of College Access and Success said the future of the program remains in question since a key source of funding expires at the close of fiscal year 2013.

“We’re encouraged that the bill backs away from the deep Pell grant cuts the House passed in March,” said Baleria. “But the test of commitment to college affordability is whether the House majority supports sufficient funding for Pell grants in fiscal year 2014, as well as 2013.”

Rehberg’s press office didn’t return calls Thursday seeking comment on the recent vote. But in March, Rehberg issued a news release saying he supports Pell grants, while adding that increasing college tuition costs and expanded eligibility have put the program’s long-term viability in jeopardy.

Pell grant expenses have increased from $12.8 billion awarded in 2006-07 to $36.7 billion this year, according to Rehberg. Next year’s costs, he said, could reach $43.9 billion.

“Pell grants open a lot of doors, but they rely on a solvent government,” Rehberg said. “Getting our deficit under control and making sure Pell grants can be sustainably funded is the only way we can guarantee that they will still be around for the next generation.”

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