The future of financial aid at UT is in your hands

Tom Melecki

“No qualified student should be prevented from attending the University for financial reasons,” declared UT’s Commission of 125, a group of prominent citizens who convened nearly a decade ago to determine how the University can best serve the state. 

UT-Austin administrators take this statement seriously. The University is working hard to hold down student costs. 

If you are an in-state undergraduate, your tuition increased at less than half the national average last year. Using the University’s flat-rate tuition plan, you are allowed to take 15 or more credit hours for the price of 12. Additionally, the University spends $100 million a year on merit-based scholarships and need-based grants, and David Laude, senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management, recently announced $5 million in new pilot programs to encourage and support four-year graduation by forgiving student loans, expanding scholarships and creating more on-campus work opportunities.

Nevertheless, the cost of attending the University keeps rising. Why? Most UT students come from elsewhere in Texas. They must leave their homes to live in Austin, which is the state’s most expensive city to rent in. And while tuition may be frozen for two years, research indicates that student living costs will average about $15,600 next academic year — up 24 percent from just five years ago — which means students pay more while government financial aid programs deliver less. 

Data in the Office of Student Financial Services show that, in the last two years, federal and state cutbacks in five key financial aid programs have cost UT students almost $20 million a year. The Legislature cut the state’s TEXAS Grants, upon which the neediest students depend, by $7 million. Lawmakers also cut funding for Texas B-On-Time Loans even though 59 percent of these loans made to previous UT students have been forgiven because the students graduated in four years with GPAs of 3.0 or better. Additionally, Congress eliminated the federal summer Pell Grants that some students used to speed time to their degrees by taking year-round classes. It also eliminated two other programs through which almost 4,400 students supplemented their Pell Grants. 

Moreover, UT’s Federal Work-Study allocations have declined 25 percent in the last five years, eliminating more than 400 undergraduate jobs, most of which were on-campus. The University’s Texas College Work-Study allotment has also decreased, and federal financial aid soon may be subject to more reductions. 

Federal Work-Study could be downsized further if Washington implements spending cuts on March 1 to avoid the fiscal cliff. Pell Grants, on which more than 11,000 UT students rely, also face an uncertain future because next year’s federal budget is still not set. Under a law already on the books, the 3.4 percent interest rate on federal loans which more than 14,000 UT students receive will rise to 6.8 percent next year. Next biennium’s preliminary state budget includes flat funding for Texas College Work-Study, Top 10 Percent Scholarships, and TEXAS Grants as the Legislature struggles with demands on a state treasury stretched thin.

Still, the University and some state and national leaders hope to see increases in financial aid. UT President William Powers Jr. recently spoke of the need for more TEXAS Grants in his testimony to state lawmakers about the state budget. Legislative appropriations committees are looking into increased funding that could provide $5,000 TEXAS Grants to as many as 90 percent of the new students who are eligible for them, up from the current level of 30 percent. The Texas Senate’s Higher Education Committee favors consistent B-on-Time funding and expanding Texas College Work-Study. The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board would amend state law so public universities may keep the tuition they must now send the state to help fund B-On-Time — ensuring that more than $6.5 million a year for B-on-Time stays at UT.

At the federal level, there is a growing consensus about the importance of keeping higher education affordable, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently funded studies that recommend increasing Pell Grants and reducing student loan interest rates. 

Financial aid decisions by federal and state policymakers affect your UT experience. If you are one of the University’s 25,000 undergraduate financial aid recipients, they affect the affordability of your UT education. If you do not rely on financial aid, they affect the students with whom you live and attend class.

As a student, you are uniquely positioned to study pending decisions on financial aid and make your preferences known. You have a living, breathing understanding of these matters. Research skills you honed in courses and on term papers can help you inform yourself about the issues. You attend classes a few blocks north of the state capitol, so you can observe funding and policy decisions in person. You have access to student-oriented media, including The Daily Texan, so you can monitor what public officials say and do.

Whether you agree that qualified students shouldn’t be prevented from attending UT for financial reasons or whether you support or oppose additional financial aid, pay attention and participate. Your present, and your future, are at stake.

Melecki is the director of Student Financial Services.