A proposal adopted by the Legislature's budget conference committee Thursday would provide funding for TEXAS Grants — the state's main source of higher education aid for financially needed students — for about 33,100 incoming freshmen. That's far less than the estimated 53,000 graduating high school seniors who would qualify for the grant, but substantially more than the budget originally approved by the House.
“It’s terrible and it saddens me, but it couldn’t been worse. It could’ve been much worse,” said Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, in reference to the House’s initial proposal to eliminate funding for all freshman students. “We strive to enhance access and to facilitate affordability of higher education. So when TEXAS Grants are not funded fully, there is a dampening of access to higher education and certainly there is a diminishing of higher education. So basically it’s a giant step backward in terms of closing the gap.”
State officials also say that the 44,200 students who already receive state aid can count on TEXAS Grants being available to them until they graduate, provided they still meet the eligibility requirements.
Just last week, it appeared the TEXAS Grants could be a casualty of the state’s budget woes. Students around the state have been putting their future plans on hold as they wait for colleges and universities to finalize their financial aid offers, something the institutions had been cautioned to hold off on until the Legislature could give a clear indication of its spending priorities.
The TEXAS Grants, designated for students from low-income families that can’t contribute more than $4,000 toward their kids’ education, proved to be a priority item for lawmakers. Though nothing is set until lawmakers vote on a final budget, the conference committee charged with settling differences between the House and Senate spending plans sided with the upper chamber’s recommendation on financial aid spending, which reduces funding for the program by $59 million compared to the last two years. Two scenarios are now in play: one that will address funding for current and new students during the next biennium, and another that will prioritize who receives that money starting with the graduating class of 2013.
Zaffirini’s counterpart in the House, Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said the cut looks worse because the Legislature infused the TEXAS Grants with a large funding increase in 2009.
For the 2011-12 academic year, grantees who attend a public university or health-related institution are qualified to receive $7,100 per year. Technical college students will be rewarded $3,450 per year. Community college students can expect $1,890 per year. Current law entitles TEXAS Grant recipients to receive those full amounts. Universities are allowed to award less in order to spread their allocation to a broader pool of students, but they must make up the difference using other sources.
Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, told the Tribune that officials there will “wait until the ink dries a little more” before they provide the state’s higher learning institutions with their next instructions. Overall, he said the message will be “to serve as many students as you can given your allocation.”
Coordinating board officials will consider whether it is necessary to redefine the need-based criteria for the grants.
“We may decide you focus on the neediest of the needy,” Chavez said, suggesting the new estimated family contribution limit might be $2,000 or even zero. “That decision has not been made.”
This week, a bipartisan conference committee also voted to adopt SB 28, a bill that provides a priority model for the TEXAS Grants. The measure passed the House on Tuesday and is expected to sail through the Senate. Lawmakers plan to enforce the law beginning with the graduating high school class of 2013. That would give students two years to prepare for the new expectations and, lawmakers hope, improve the state’s graduation rates, which hovers just over 50 percent for TEXAS Grant recipients. Many of the low-income students who start college have a hard time staying due to personal or financial hardship.
"We were having a lot of money going into [TEXAS Grants] and not a lot of people getting the certificate, either their bachelor’s or associate’s degree," Branch said. "Now what we want to see is we’re helping students out and we’re getting the completion ... so that we can have evidence to the rest of the country and the world that we have an educated workforce."
State Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said he is "very disappointed" with the final budget for TEXAS Grants, but he believes the distribution model that rewards students on a first-come, first-served basis should transition toward one that identifies students with the strongest potential.
"Needy students will still be the only ones that qualify for TEXAS grants, but the ones that will receive the money first are those who’ve performed best and demonstrated that they’re most college ready," he said.
In order to receive a TEXAS Grant, students will have to demonstrate need and meet two out of four academic criteria: advanced coursework, assessment tests, a B average or placement in the top third of their class, or completion of a math class above algebra II. Zaffirini said the priority model is necessary because the TEXAS Grants have never been fully funded by the Legislature and may not be anytime soon.
Overall, about 43,000 fewer students will receive state aid in the next biennium. The coordinating board said a small number of those students are double counted because they receive other grant funding such as work study and aid for graduating in their class's academic top 10 percent.
Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, offered a blunt assessment Tuesday of the budget cut's effect on higher education in the months to come, especially compared to other ballooning portions of the budget like K-12 education and health services: "It's just going to be harder for poor kids to go to college."