State needs to keep its end of the bargain by funding grants

Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, December 02, 2004

Nearly 23,000 Texas students believed what they were told by their government and used a popular state grant program to finance their college educations. The students kept their end of the bargain by taking tougher courses in high school and maintaining a passing average in college. But now, the state is reneging on its promise.

State government shouldn't leave students in the lurch nor risk that they go away with the lesson that their government is untrustworthy.

Yet, that seems to be the lesson plan Texas leaders adopted. They have proposed drastic cuts to the much ballyhooed $295 million TEXAS grant program, which is out of money. Thousands of students who were promised state-paid tuition might now get stuck with the bill.

The grant program, formally called the Toward Excellence Access and Success program, is the Texas version of the Georgia Hope scholarship. Legislators created it in 1999 to pay tuition and fees for students who earn a diploma by passing one of the state's tough high school curricula — either the recommended plan or the distinguished achievement plan. The bipartisan program signaled the state's interest in developing an educated and competitive workforce. No student who worked hard would be left behind or turned away from a university, college or community college because he or she couldn't afford it. The grant program was passed with Republican and Democratic support before the onset of the biting partisanship that has permeated the Capitol..

In the current no-new-taxes climate, state leaders are discussing restructuring the entire grant program. They have proposed scaling it back from four years to two and combining it with a state loan program to finance an additional two years. The shift to the loan program would save the state a projected $1 billion, but students would be responsible for paying back the loan if they didn't graduate in four years with a B average from college or two years from community college.

Of course, we'd like to see the TEXAS grant program continued in full. Several college leaders, including University of Texas officials, relied heavily on the program as a selling point to sever the Legislature's control of state college tuition rates. They argued then that the TEXAS grant program would shield low- and middle-income students from the full impact of hefty tuition increases that would result from deregulation.

That rosy forecast isn't panning out. Tuition increases, which have been as much as 21 percent this year at UT-Austin, have eaten up the pool of funds set aside for the TEXAS grant program faster than expected. The grant program was strained, too, by the Legislature, which in 2003 only increased financing for the $295 million program by 10 percent. A revamped program that relies heavily on loans won't be nearly as effective as grants have been in deflecting tuition increases.

The timing of cutting the program couldn't be worse. Congress recently passed legislation that is expected to cause 100,000 students nationwide to lose federal Pell grants.

Politically, the TEXAS grant program might only survive by cutting it and combining it with the loan program, as some are recommending. That position is a retreat on the previous decision that every needy kid who earns the grades will get free college tuition. Even so, the state shouldn't back down from its commitments. Texas leaders should see to it that the state keeps its bargain with the thousands of students who kept their end of the deal. Give them the grants. They earned them.