A bill by Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would change the system for distributing TEXAS Grants — the state's primary need-based aid program — by creating a new priority system passed the Senate today by a vote of 24-7.
Since TEXAS Grants was created in 1999, more than 310,000 students have received a total of more than $2 billion. However, it has never fully met the state's demand for financial aid. Now, because of the state's budget situation, there will be significantly less money dedicated to the program. In fact, the budget recently passed by the House eliminates all funding for incoming students for at least the next two years.
Currently, the grants, which cover tuition at most public universities, are awarded on a first come, first served basis to students who meet the financial need criteria. Zaffirini's bill, Senate Bill 28, would create a priority model to allow high-achieving students to jump to the front of the line. As amended, the bill says that, to receive priority access to the grant, students would have to have met two of the following four criteria: taken a strenuous college preparatory curriculum; passed or were declared exempt from the Texas Success Initiative test, which determines college-readiness; finished in the top third of their graduation class or had a B average; or taken advanced math courses.
Most of the opposition came from Democrats, who worried that it put yet another hurdle between financially needy and minority Texas students and higher education. During the floor debate, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, raised concerns for high school students whose public high schools did a poor job of preparing them. "Somehow a lot of them make it," said Ellis. "By raising those standards, those kids are the ones that are going to be less likely to borrow money because of the cost of college in Texas.”
During the debate, Zaffirini noted that 70 percent of Texas' minority students already meet the priority criteria. Still, after the passage, Ellis said in a press release, "I think it is the wrong step and will widen the gap in college participation, not close it."
State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, added an amendment to the bill that requires grants to be administered to the students that meet the priority criteria in order of their need, with the neediest students being served first.
The House was scheduled to take up a similar bill by House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, today, but he postponed it so that he could take a look at what the Senate committee passed.
When the bill comes up, state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, will try to provide some help for the two classes of freshman who, as the House budget stands, are at risk of never being eligible for TEXAS Grants. His amendment would create a mechanism for them to join the program if and when more money becomes available. "The Texas Legislature made a promise to these students, and I intend to make good on that promise with this amendment," Castro said.