Sunday, May 22, 2011

Texas Students Wait for Word on College Grants

by Thanh Tan | Texas Tribune
May 22, 2011

The Texas Legislature made a promise to the state’s most financially needy high school seniors in 1999: Money will not be a barrier to your higher education at a public college or university if you stay out of trouble, complete certain courses and graduate from high school.

The goal was to bridge the gap between wealthier students and those students who are motivated but poor. But as lawmakers in the current legislative session grapple with a huge state budget shortfall, they are threatening to renege on that pledge. Thousands of Texas students have been forced to put their college plans on hold, and inevitably, some will learn their dreams of attending college are financially out of reach.

Since the inception of TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program has helped more than 300,000 students. The grants go to students who are determined to have an estimated family contribution of $4,000 or less. In fiscal year 2011, 74,900 students received awards totaling $340.8 million. Over the next two years, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates an additional 53,000 new high school graduates would be eligible for the award. But while demand for the grant has risen, the money to finance the program has not.

The Texas Legislature has yet to finalize a budget for the coming two years, but the proposals under consideration would slash the grant program. The House’s current plan would cover only about 44,200 renewal students — and would provide no grants for incoming college students. The Senate’s proposal, more likely to be in the final budget, would finance about 77,300 students, including those who already receive aid and some new high school graduates.

(The Tribune has created an interactive to show how much TEXAS Grants funding has been allocated to the state's 94 colleges and universities between 2006 and 2010.)

For students who are eligible to receive a TEXAS Grant this fall, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, those attending a public university or health-related institution are qualified to receive $7,100 per year. Awards for public technical colleges will be $3,540 per year, and $1,890 per year for those attending community colleges..

At Austin High School, in the heart of the capital city, a small group of 18 students have spent four years focusing on getting into college. Now seniors, they were selected as eighth graders to be part of the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, or AVID, which helps impoverished students learn study skills and also navigate the college application process. Nearly every participant in the course is a minority — some come from single-parent households, and others entered the country illegally as young children with their parents. All of them could be the first in their family to receive a four-year college education.

Jose Perez, 18, one of the AVID program members, is feeling firsthand the effects of the possible budget cuts. Teachers describe him as an enthusiastic and brilliant student. Jose was elated this spring when he was accepted to both Texas State University in San Marcos and the University of Texas at San Antonio. But the financial aid packages and scholarships offered to him would not cover the tuition and board at those schools. Then, he learned the Legislature might not fund TEXAS Grants for incoming freshmen.

“I wanted to feel proud that I went to a four-year university,” he said. Now he’s holding out hope that he can cobble together enough financial aid to attend Austin Community College. With his father’s work hours at his tailoring job recently cut and his mother laid off from her job as a seamstress, Jose gives his paycheck from his part-time job at a thrift store to his family instead of saving it for college.

The teenager said he would put his plans to become an aerospace or mechanical engineer on hold — for now. “I want to do something to change the world, because I live under one philosophy: you must give back what you receive,” he said.

Each year, financial aid offices at the state’s 94 public institutions of higher learning determine how they will distribute their allotted TEXAS Grant money. Most students decide by May 1 where they will go in the fall. This year, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board took the unprecedented step of instructing schools to use “cautionary language” in their financial aid offers to students until legislators have set the state budget, or offer state aid “at its own risk.”

In the months since, schools have taken different approaches to deal with the uncertainty. The University of Texas at Austin has opted to not include any TEXAS Grants in offers to freshmen.

Tom Melecki, the director of the Office of Student Financial Services at the University of Texas at Austin, said that for the 2010-2011 school year, more than 1,500 freshmen relied on TEXAS Grants to attend the state’s flagship university. To make matters worse, Melecki said, unless the Legislature changes the program’s rules, students who do not receive a TEXAS Grant in their freshman year cannot receive one thereafter.

“We could easily see the number of low-income freshman that would be trying to come here really diminish,” he said.

Debra Windham, the teacher who recruited Perez to be part of the AVID program at Austin High, said she cried when she learned the TEXAS Grants may not be available for her students. For years, she has promised them that if they made the commitment to work hard, she would help them find a way to pay for college.

“It just never crossed my mind that that money might not be there,” she said. “They’ve done their part and I can’t do mine. The fact is, these kids lives are going to be different.”

But there is hope. Znobea Williams, 18, is so far one of the few students in the class who has found enough financing to move on to a university in the fall. The youngest of four children raised by a single mother, she will be the first to attend college. She was accepted to every school she applied to.

“Every single one of us are here for a reason, because we want to accomplish our goals to go to college,” she said. “But not having that money is a big challenge for our lives because we can’t live our dreams like everyone else can.”

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