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Reopening the Gaps

Nothing has helped Texas "close the gaps" of higher education achievement more than financial aid for low-income students. But with coming budget cuts, tens of thousands of students could lose out on the state's largest and most generous financial aid program.

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Rashad Deckard has something going for him that eludes many of his peers in Palestine, his hometown. In December, he'll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business marketing from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. “People who come from small towns, we have few role models,” he says, “especially in the black community."

"They see me in college and the things I’m doing,” he says of younger Palestine students, “and it makes them want to go to college.”

Deckard has served as president of the school’s NAACP chapter, completed an internship at Merrill Lynch and was crowned homecoming king. But he couldn't have done any of that, he says, without a TEXAS Grant. Established by the Legislature in 1999, the Toward Excellence, Access and Success Grant today is the state’s largest financial aid program, and it covers full tuition at most state schools. To be eligible, a student must have graduated from high school — without getting a drug conviction along the way — and be an entering undergraduate.

Now, with an expected budget shortfall that some estimate could hit $18 billion, all state agencies are being asked to cut back 10 percent, and TEXAS Grants could be slashed. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which administers the program, a 10 percent cut would mean approximately 24,000 fewer TEXAS Grants would be available to college students in the next biennium — a drop from 113,000 to 89,000. In particular, first-time TEXAS Grants would drop from 78,000 to 37,000, a decline of 41,000. That means approximately two out of three new students eligible to receive an initial TEXAS Grant would be turned away.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who began clamoring for a program of this kind more than 15 years ago. “And it runs counter to the announced public policy of the state.”

"Do everything possible"

For the last decade, the Higher Education Coordinating Board has been engaged in an effort to close the achievement gaps between Texas and other states by 2015. A crucial component of that will be increasing success rates of minority students, especially Hispanics, who also happen to be the population most served by TEXAS Grants. To reach the 2015 goal, the number of degrees conferred to Hispanics will need to increase by approximately 24,000 — coincidentally, that’s the same number of awards the state could lose under the proposed cuts.

It’s too early to tell, but some reduction in the number of grants is probably inevitable, Wentworth says. State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chair of the House Higher Education Committee, says he hopes the program can be spared from “dramatic” cuts because of the long-term consequences of cutting financial aid. Meanwhile, the state senator who authored the legislation establishing the TEXAS Grants program, Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis, says he will “do everything possible” to ensure that the program “is not only protected from cuts but expanded."

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes won’t say he’s confident that the program can be exempted from cuts — anything can happen in a legislative session — but he's "hopeful" after discussions with the state leadership. “I’m not so much worried about dramatic cuts,” Paredes says. “I’m worried about whether we’re keeping up with enrollment growth.”

One bright spot in the state's “closing the gaps” performance has been increasing participation in higher education. Texans are attending college at record rates, and the student population is increasingly poor — a trend largely attributable to financial aid, Paredes says. "The data shows that a lot of those students just won’t go to college if they don’t have financial aid,” Paredes says. According to a Legislative Budget Board study released in 2009, a TEXAS Grant increases students' chances of graduating by about 45 percent — the equivalent of 350 points on the SAT or 30 percentile points in their high school ranking. Without increases in financing, the program will cover a smaller and smaller percentage.

And there’s another financing problem. The total grant awards are tied to the average cost of tuition, which has increased markedly since the state deregulated tuition in 2003. As tuition increases, so does the cost of each grant. Over time, even consistent financing would serve fewer and fewer students and an increasingly smaller percentage of the growing student body. 

Coming up short

Even before tuition deregulation, the TEXAS Grants program could not handle the demand from eligible students, a condition that continues even with a $186.4 million financing increase in 2009. “We were short right from the get-go,” says state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. “This leadership has never honored the commitment that was inherent in the program: that students who had financial need and were eligible would get a TEXAS Grant. We’ve always been playing catch-up.”

In a tight budget year, not all Texans are particularly eager to see their tax dollars sending other people’s kids to college. “I have to tell some of my constituents, [who] are concerned this is some kind of give away or welfare program, that it’s far from that,” Wentworth says. It’s a case he will also have to make to his fellow legislators, whom he expects to spend the session engaged in “a lot of nail-biting and serious contemplation.”

State Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, believes the potential cuts to TEXAS Grants represent an opportunity for dialogue. “First we need to have a public conversation about what the cuts mean,” he says. “Will certain cuts save us money today only to cost us more a few years from now? Will certain cuts harm the growth and development of young children? Will certain cuts undermine our future economic prospects?"

For Deckard, having a TEXAS Grant means he faces some serious contemplation of his own. Specifically, what's next: graduate school or a job? Because he found a way to afford a four-year degree, he already has an internship at a Fortune 500 company under his belt. “That, and my college degree, is going to give me a foot up over somebody else in the job market,” he says. Leaving his small town behind, he has his sights set on move to a big city in the spring — to Houston, he says, or maybe Austin, where the 82nd Legislature will be in session.

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