Messing with Success

Texas Grants have provided thousands of young people with the means to get a college education. Why change a winning formula?

Houston Chronicle
March 12, 2005

Since its launch five years ago, the state-funded Texas Grants program has paid half a billion dollars in public college tuition and fees for more than 115,000 high school graduates certified as financially needy. Minorities, many the first in their family to attend college, received 60 percent of the grants. During that period, grant recipients graduated or made scheduled progress toward their degree at the same or higher rates than students who received no grant.

Texas is well below the national average for college graduates. With Texas Grants' contribution to closing that gap, one would think Texas lawmakers would allow the program to continue on its successful way. Instead, a bill in the Texas Senate would combine Texas Grants with another educational assistance effort directed toward middle-income students, B-On-Time. The proposal would require students to graduate in four years or have their third- and fourth year grants converted into loans that must be repaid.

With its added restrictions, such a merger would severely damage the effectiveness of Texas Grants, according to Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who wrote the original legislation creating the scholarship program after learning about a similar effort in Georgia. As a proud parent of an overachieving program, he's trying to convince his colleagues that it doesn't make sense to undermine one of the few proven producers of minority college graduates at a time when Texas needs an expanded pool of educated workers to bolster economic development.

"I think instead of closing the gap between those who have a college degree and those who don't, that this will widen the gap," says Ellis.

According to figures supplied by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, combining Texas Grants and B-On-Time would result in more than 26,000 students losing Texas Grant eligibility next year if current recipients are not grandfathered in for four year eligibility. Another 20,000 students would lose grant eligibility the following year.

Some Texas Grant students take longer to graduate than nongrant graduates. This should come as no surprise, considering that participants often lack family support and must work to pay for books, room and board. However, statistics show that after five years, grant recipients graduate at the same rate as nongrant students from universities, and at higher rates than nongrant counterparts at community and technical colleges.

Proponents of the program merger tout it as a way to move students through the public university system faster, freeing up space at crowded state institutions. That ignores the fact that courses necessary to graduate often are unavailable when students need to take them. Also, some students change majors as they mature and discover new fields of endeavor.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are keeping hands off another state educational assistance program, the Tuition Equalization Program, which subsidizes Texas students attending private colleges in the state. It provides funds to make up the difference between state and private school tuition. It seems a strange ordering of priorities to impose restrictions on low-income students receiving state grants for public colleges while continuing to provide unrestricted subsidies for students attending private institutions.

As Ellis correctly points out, no one is advocating cutting back on Tuition Equalization or B-On-Time funding. However, endangering Texas Grants, the state's most successful college assistance program for needy students, doesn't make fiscal or educational sense either. Lawmakers shouldn't tinker with what isn't broken.