Proposed changes could expand access to TEXAS Grants

Joshua Fechter

Texas could expand access to a financial aid program that benefits thousands of low-income students at UT if it enacts recommendations passed down by the state’s higher education agency.

Raymund Paredes, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner, told a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday that the TEXAS Grant Program would need $1.3 billion to fully function during the 2014-15 biennium.

“Unless the Legislature is willing to make significant increase in the TEXAS Grant Program every session as demand continues to increase, this program is simply not sustainable in its current form,” Paredes said.

The program serves students whose expected family contribution to their cost of attendance is $4,000 or less, which constitute a large percentage of students graduating from public schools, Paredes said.

“Given that fact, the state simply can’t meet the escalating demand for financial aid under current program operational guidelines and funding levels,” Paredes said.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is asking the Texas Legislature to allocate $719.6 million to the TEXAS Grant Program for the 2014-15 biennium. That amount is about $145 million more than the amount the program would have if the Legislature approved current proposals and $580.4 million less than what Paredes said it would take to fund the program properly.

Additional funds would allow the board to serve a greater percentage of incoming freshmen who are eligible for the grant, according to data provided by the coordinating board.

Current House and Senate proposals allocate $559.5 million to the program for the 2014-15 biennium, the same amount approved during the previous legislative session for the 2012-13 session.  The board also uses about $15 million in donations to fund the program, bringing the total funds available for the program to $574.5 million.

The coordinating board is also asking the Legislature to reduce the maximum amount of individual awards from $7,700 to $5,000 for university students and from $2,640 to $1,325 for community college students.

Fred Heldenfels, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board chairman, said traditional college-age workers have fewer degrees than workers approaching retirement. Heldenfels said the state must encourage younger workers to obtain degrees, partially by reforming how the state distributes financial aid.

“Texas must significantly increase the education and skills of these workers or risk decades of declining competitiveness,” Heldenfels said.

This system only allows the program to give grants to 22 percent of eligible incoming freshmen, according to data provided by the coordinating board. If the Legislature enacted the board’s recommendations, the program could allocate grants to 90 percent of eligible incoming freshmen.

According to the 2011 budget passed by the Legislature, the 2012-13 allocation aimed to serve an estimated 60,114 students in 2012 and 49,907 in 2013. The proposed allocation for the 2014-15 biennium would serve an estimated 77,615 students in 2014 and 85,965 in 2015.

The Legislature allocated $50.7 million to 8,449 students at UT eligible for the grant during the 2012-13 biennium, according to information provided by the Office of Student Financial Services. During the 2010-11 biennium, 7,653 UT students received grants out of the $59.4 million allocated by the Legislature to the University.

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, said the state must consider rising tuition costs when discussing how to offset the cost of attendance and how to encourage students to graduate within the time allotted by their degree plan.

“In some cases,” Giddings said, “it appears that we may be locking out those very people, I think, who would make the biggest difference in terms of our society.”