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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Lawmakers May Tighten Rules on 2 Key College Aid Programs

This is really unfortunate. Check out the link for more information on Texas Grants. Along with tuition increases due to recent deregulation, this is going to hit working families hard.
-Angela


April 11, 2005, 12:06PM

Lawmakers May Tighten Rules on 2 Key College Aid Programs

Bills could make it more difficult to benefit from TEXAS Grant, B-On-Time loans
By JEFFREY GILBERT
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

TUITION OPTIONS
Two bills propose changes to two programs that help students pay for college:
The programs
• TEXAS Grant: Students must take at least nine hours per semester and do not repay the grants.
• B-On-Time: Loans are forgiven for students who graduate with a B average in four years (five years for such programs as architecture) or within six credit hours of what their degree requires. Students who don't must repay loans, interest-free.
• Both programs: Students must take recommended high school curriculum. They receive $3,590 per year for university, $1,980 for technical schools and $1,270 for community colleges.
The bills
• House Bill 3 000: First two years are a TEXAS Grant, and final two years are B-On-Time Loan. If requirements aren't met, loan must be paid back, interest-free.
• Senate Bill 31: Students receiving a TEXAS Grant must take at least 30 hours per year, with exceptions for people who have severe illness or are responsible for the care of a sick, injured or needy personAUSTIN - Houman Hassanpour maintains close to a 3.9 grade-point average at the University of Houston, taking such classes as organic chemistry and participating in many extracurricular activities.

He moved to Houston from Iran five years ago, and lives at home to help his mother raise his two younger brothers. Hassanpour is using a TEXAS Grant to pay for college. Without it, he wouldn't be able to attend.

"I don't have time to work enough to cover tuition," he said. "If I wouldn't have had the grant, I would have either been very, very down on my hours or had to drop out of school because we don't have a good family income."

Lawmakers often wring their hands over the low number of students who attend college — Texas ranks 45th in the number of high schoolers who enroll in college, at just more than 50 percent.

But Texas provides about $120 million less in state financial aid than the other five biggest states in the nation. Georgia, a state one-third the size of Texas, spends $50 million more in direct state financial aid.

Now, the state's most successful college assistance program is in danger of being further eroded by merging with another state scholarship program, and students such as Hassanpour could be left without a way to fund their education.

Created in 1999, the TEXAS Grant program provides tuition and fees for Texas students who take challenging courses in high school and require financial aid in college. Since its inception, about 115,000 students have received more than $600 million in financial aid.

Budget cuts eliminated 22,000 students from the program last session, and more people are set to be cut again. While the current budget allocates $324 million for the program, the proposed Senate fiscal plan gives $294 million over the next biennium and the House version allocates $322 million.

One idea has the program merging with B-On-Time, an initiative that began two years ago and forgives the loans of students who graduate with a B average within four years for a four-year degree or within six credit hours of what their degree requires.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, led the effort to create the TEXAS Grant program six years ago, and said the merger is a bad idea.

No other state requires students to meet both the grade and time requirement, Ellis said, and having Texas students do that could cause a hardship. Many scholarship recipients must work to pay for other college costs, such as books and board, Ellis said.

"I want (students) out, and I want them out with a good average, but the first step to getting them out is to get them in," Ellis said. "I can assure you one thing: If you don't get them in, you will not get them out."


Stiff requirements
About 23 percent of all Texas college students and 17 percent of TEXAS Grant students graduate in four years, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, meaning a majority wouldn't meet the B-On-Time requirements and could be dropped from the program.


"I think there's a role for the notion of the B-On-Time program, but in today's economy, that's more of a suburban, upper-class program," he said. "Texas is so far behind the national curve already. We've simply got to get more of our young people on the college track."

Already in his third year, Hassanpour, a 21-year-old sophomore, said he will take at least five years to graduate, because of his tougher course load and extra activities.

"I don't think it makes much sense," he said. "You can't graduate in four years unless you take advanced classes in high school, and not everybody can do that."


Time restraints
Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, is sponsoring the bill that would merge the two programs. In her plan, the first two years would remain a TEXAS Grant, but the second two would become a B-On-Time loan. Students who don't keep a B average or take more than four years to get out of school would have to pay back the loan, interest-free.



"We are trying to get the most for the money we have," Morrison said. "Students are staying in school for six years to get their degrees, and that's a detriment to the state, to the school and to the citizens. Hopefully this will help."

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, opposes the merging of the two programs because they have "two totally different purposes." Ellis' program is a grant that doesn't need to be repaid, while B-On-Time is a loan.

Zaffirini is sponsoring a bill that would require TEXAS Grant students to take at least 30 hours per year.

"I think that's very reasonable," she said. "The longer a student takes to get a degree, the more expensive it is. We are trying to do everything we can to motivate students. A typical student should take more (than 30 hours). There's a responsibility associated with receiving scholarships."

Both women said getting students out faster will free up space for more people to get the scholarships, and will get them into the work force earlier, which benefits everyone.


'Pretty tough road'
To fight the plans, Ellis said he is "sounding the alarm." He has written university presidents from around the state, including Jay Gogue, president of UH. He is meeting with student newspapers, editorial boards and has sent information packets to his colleagues.



Public university presidents have been slow to get involved, Ellis said, because they are scared they could lose funding elsewhere. Sometimes it comes down to lobbying for the grants or for a new science building.

"They need to decide what their priorities are," he said, "the students who they are charged with educating, or putting more money into the infrastructure. I'm not all that sure they can't make a case for both."

Gogue said UH students benefit at a far greater rate from TEXAS Grants than they do from the B-On-Time program. He said 82 percent of his students work at least 30 hours a week, and imposing a time restriction for graduation could cause problems.

"That's a pretty tough road for most people," he said.

Gogue said he understands lawmakers are worried about the state's growing population, but if changes have to be made, he would advocate for restrictions on the number of courses a student has to take, rather than the amount of time one has to complete them.


Motives questioned
Ellis also wonders why measures aren't being taken to merge funding for the Tuition Equalization Program with TEXAS Grants and B-On-Time. That program subsidizes Texas students who go to a private college. Zaffirini's bill does require the private school students to take at least 30 hours per year, as well.



Ellis points out that his program carries tougher requirements because students getting Tuition Equalization grants aren't required to take the recommended high school curriculum and only have to take six hours in college.

"What's driving this is not altruism, it's money," he said. "If the goal is flexibility, then put that program in there as well."

Hassanpour said his brother is applying to colleges now, and his family is counting on grants like the one he has.

jeffrey.gilbert@chron.com

http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/metropolitan/3127778

1 comment:

  1. This is an extremely compelling story because it has such far-reaching implications for students from lower socio-economic families. I have a large group of former students at UT-Austin, most of whom are on Texas Grants and the B-on-Time programs. What is not always noted, is that many students are having to work IN ADDITION to these grants and loans. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for them to balance school work (and a B average), employment, and student activities while in college.

    Annie, one of my former students, works between 20 and 30 hours a week while carrying a full load of courses at UT. She was a very active high school student and is saddened by the loss of extra-curricular activities now that she is in college. But the reality is, these programs--like the "B-on-time" loan--put such pressure on students to complete their degrees that they do not get to cultivate a comprehensive collegiate experience. When I was working with high school students, I constantly nudged them to get active in the school and community, to volunteer in organizations they found valuable, and to do whatever they could to "beef up" their college applications. I reminded them that employers would look for similar (extra-curricular) activities once they completed their college degress, so they should continue to strive toward well-roundedness.

    I appreciate the Texas Grant and loan forgiveness programs, but I have to wonder if the merging of the two and the stiffer requirements won't do more to dissuade students from attending college at all. Perhaps that is the ultimate, hidden goal. We're in a fiscal crisis in this state, so education is always the first place to make the cuts.

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