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TribBlog: Excellence for Aid?

A previously rejected proposal that would give TEXAS Grants to college students based on academic merit, rather than on a first-come, first-served basis, saw the light again on Wednesday — but old tensions still linger about who should get a piece of the nearly $615 million financial aid pie first.

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A previously rejected proposal that would give TEXAS Grants to college students based on academic merit rather than on a first-come-first-served basis saw the light again on Wednesday — but old tensions still linger about who should get a piece of the nearly $615 million financial aid pie first.

Top officials in the state's higher education system said students who take AP courses in high school, have a 3.0 grade point average or meet other proposed criteria should be first in line for the grants. They pitched the proposal, called the "priority model," at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday.

Currently "we fund on the basis of needy students showing up at the financial aid office first," Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes says. State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, fears such a system "seems random" for the 63,000 students who got TEXAS Grants help in 2009.

Instead, the Higher Education Coordinating Board, which Paredes oversees, proposed giving priority to students who meet two of four criteria — advanced academic participation, Texas Success Initiative readiness, a 3.0 GPA or top one-third class standing — then to others with financial need.

But state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, had concerns about switching to a merit-based system for eligible students, who must qualify by having an expected family contribution of less than $4,000 per year.

"You're dealing with a section of society in the state where multiple members of the family work to make it through the course of a week, a month, a year," said Lucio. That burden could keep deserving students from meeting the proposed criteria, he said. They may be able to pass their classes, he said, but some won't reach the top third.

Such concerns helped kill a bill by the chairman of the Finance Committee, state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, in the last legislative session.

In order to succeed next year, Ogden said Wednesday, the model must include an "exception-to-the-rule" criteria for deserving students who might lose a grant otherwise.

"I think in order to get legislative support, if you're trying to allocate a limited resource, it's best to use it on the kids who are most likely to succeed," Ogden said. "At least a portion of that needs to be set aside for exceptions to the rule."

Paredes said the board's proposal wouldn't necessarily exclude students who don't meet the merit criteria. But because it is not proposing a change in how much grant money is allocated to colleges and universities, the amount of money left over for such students would vary from school to school.

The grants pay up to $6,080 per year. The state last year added $180 million for TEXAS Grant funding, but Paredes said that, in light of state budget issues this year, the renewed priority model does not assume another funding increase.

Paredes said the college or university graduation rate for students who meet the proposed criteria is almost 60 percent, versus 29 percent for those who don't. Citing those statistics, he argued that adopting a priority model would increase the number of graduates from Texas universities.

That claim came after state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, criticized the board earlier on Wednesday for bringing forth too few concrete recommendations for improving college retention and graduation rates. She said talking to parents and trying to create a "college-going culture" — two pushes Paredes and THECB chair Fred Heldenfels said the board would make — weren't enough.

"We've been doing that for 15 years," Shapiro said. "We need action items."

Paredes said the board will continue to seek a legislative sponsor for the merit-based priority model for 2011.

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