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State Aid Levels a Mystery as Texans Apply for College

By Peter Malof

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - As they put the finishing touches on their college application essays, many young Texans are unable to estimate how much aid they may be eligible to receive during their quests for diplomas.

Lawmakers will soon have to tackle a funding crisis in the TEXAS Grant program, which is the main source of state financial aid. 

Luis Figueroa, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is trying to persuade officials that if recent funding cuts are sustained, higher education will be out of reach for many.

"Texas is at a crossroads when it comes to college access. At the current rates, only 18 percent of new eligible students are projected to receive a TEXAS Grant. At this point, it's not a viable program."

Last year, 64 percent of eligible students were awarded grants. That was before lawmakers slashed TEXAS Grants by $62 million. 

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which administers the program, is telling legislators that, unless funding is restored, aid formulas will have to be restructured. One proposal actually increases the percentage of students receiving help, but spreads the money much more thinly. Figueroa says that would just tape over the problem.

"They're trying to spread the money around, but they're underfunding each student as a result. They are just plugging the holes where they can, and they're not plugging it even with strong duct tape - they're using Scotch tape at this point."

He calls the situation dire - not only for students, but for the future Texas economy. The state's emerging workforce, he explains, increasingly relies on low- and middle-income young Latinos who are the first in their families to pursue higher education - if they can afford it. Colleges and universities, he adds, risk losing their recruitment edge to institutions in other states.

Texas Representative Michael Villarreal (D-San Antonio) has been working with the higher education board on proposed fixes to the TEXAS Grant program. While he says reforms are necessary, he thinks without at least a partial restoration of funds, many young Texans will be forced to turn down invitations to attend college next fall.

"We have a choice to make: are we going to invest in them, because a brighter future for them means a brighter future for all of us? Or retrench and say, 'Nah, our best years are behind us - let's just shut the door on many deserving children.'"

Villarreal says money could be saved by pro-rating award amounts for less-than-full-time students. Other proposals lawmakers will likely consider in the upcoming Legislature include eliminating TEXAS Grants for transfer students and community colleges. Institutions with lower success rates may also receive lower levels of support.