Critics say state college loan program unfair

By Chris Roberts
The Associated Press
March 13, 2004

EL PASO - Adrian Garcia could certainly use some help paying for college.

Garcia and his wife have a 21-month-old son, a house payment and two cars. He must work full time while pursuing a double major in political science and communications at the University of Texas at El Paso.

"It's tough," said Garcia, 24, who has about $10,000 in student loan debt. "It takes a lot of faith in God to be able to manage our time and be able to go to school. It takes a lot of discipline."

Though he could use assistance, he won't qualify for the full benefits of a new state program that offers zero-interest loans -- or forgiveness of debt altogether -- to full-time students who get good grades and graduate on time.

The fact that needy students such as Garcia typically can't take full class loads is a major shortcoming of the "B-On-Time" program, critics say.

"I do feel that our students, many of whom are commuter students and work as single parents, won't be able to meet the criteria for the loan forgiveness," said Linda Fossen, associate vice president for enrollment planning at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, which have a combined enrollment of 10,600.

The program, which started this year, provides no-interest loans that are forgiven for full-time students who graduate in the normal time with at least a 'B' average. What's considered a normal amount of time depends on the degree; it's typically four or five years.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who sponsored the bill that created the program, said it will help students get an affordable education, get on with their careers and create room for more students.

Others say it's a good deal despite any problems.

Karen Krause, director of financial aid at the University of Texas at Arlington, noted a provision in the law allowing some students to receive loan forgiveness even if it takes longer than the normal time. Under the provision, students can qualify as long as they don't have more than six credit hours over what's required for the degree.

"At the worst, it's still a zero-interest loan," she said.

But that doesn't change the 12-hour-per-semester requirement.

The program is expected to provide about $22 million in loans for 2004 and $34 million in 2005 to an estimated 27,000 students, said Lois Hollis, Higher Education Coordinating Board assistant commissioner for student services.

The loans over the next two years will come from savings reaped when another student loan program was refinanced. Long-term funding will come from skimming 5 percent of recent and future tuition increases at public universities.

Students are eligible at private schools, community colleges and public universities that don't contribute money to the program.

"There's something terribly wrong with that program, and it is a reverse Robin Hood," said Richard Padilla, UTEP vice president of student affairs. "The lower the socioeconomic level of the student, the more it is going to affect them."

Zaffirini said the rules will be adjusted during the 2005 legislative session to ensure that schools can't participate unless they fund the program.

"There is no free ride," she said.

Even so, Padilla said most of the 13,000 or so students at UTEP work and won't meet the requirements for loan forgiveness. A 2002 study showed that more than 65 percent of UTEP students surveyed said they worked off campus, and more than 46 percent worked 20 hours or more.

Zaffirini said the program will help address the problem of students taking too long to graduate, which makes it harder for others to enter the system.

Only 20 percent of students in Texas graduate in four years, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The five-year rate is 43 percent, according to the board.