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Higher Ed Leaders Want Financial Aid Priority for Community College Transfers

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Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes

Texas Grants, the state’s main college aid program, could give priority to transfers from community colleges if some higher ed leaders have their way.

The Legislature cut funding for Texas Grants in 2011 (along with just about everything else), and Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes recently told lawmakers that the program needs big changes, and more money, if it’s going to survive. Paredes has already asked universities to give out smaller grants—to partially cover more students—and this fall, for the first time, new rules will give priority treatment to students with good grades and higher test scores.

The Texas Association of Community Colleges wants similar treatment for transfer students from community colleges headed to four-year universities. Earlier this month, TACC’s Glenda Barron told the House Higher Education Committee that her group hopes that’ll help students continue on to earn a four-year degree.

Community college groups have been hoping to make this happen since at least 2006—but this session, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board supports the idea too. Community colleges have taken on a vital role lately, in meeting Gov. Rick Perry’s challenge to offer a $10,000 college degree.

The policy would make a big difference because there’s a huge waiting list for Texas Grants. Though the program hasn’t been fully funded for years, it’s harder than ever to get a Texas Grant today. Only 30 percent of newly eligible students will get any funding for the 2013-2014 school year, according to a report from the board.

Steven Johnson, vice president of public affairs for TACC, told the Observer that the change would help students who’ve already put in two years of college work, but can’t afford the tuition jump from community college to university.

“There’s a lot of students at Texas community colleges that don’t receive the Texas Grant when they first enroll,” Johnson said, and that makes it hard for them to get aid if they transfer to a university. Just 14 percent of the state’s money for Texas Grants goes to community college students, in part because community college tuition is lower than at universities.

Helping students transfer is part of community college’s mission, Johnson said. “We want our students to be able to transfer and be successful and get their baccalaureate degrees. … Financial aid policy needs to be aligned to make that happen as seamlessly as possible.”

Today, if a student wants to earn a bachelor’s after finishing a two-year associate’s degree, they’re out of luck.

“There’s a very, very narrow pathway for community college students to actually transfer and have access to a Texas Grant,” agreed Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman Dominic Chavez. “We have a disproportionate number of poor students that start community college … because of the cost,” he said, “yet we’ve created a Texas Grant program that basically shuts the door on a vast majority of those students.”

The groups have different ideas about how to fix that problem, though.

The Association of Community Colleges wants priority treatment for transfer students who’ve already earned an associate’s degree, or an equivalent amount of college credit hours. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board wants to open the door even further, giving priority status to transfers even if they haven’t earned their associate’s degree yet.

Chavez said the plan would “encourage those needy students who started in community college [to] make that leap and actually get access to aid.” But, he said, “Doing so is going to require more investment from the state to make sure that those students get covered.”

The coordinating board is asking for $163.7 million more from the Legislature this session.

Senate Higher Education chairman Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) said he’s not sold on the idea of encouraging students to leave community college before getting their associate’s degrees—”I’m not sure I understand why we would want to do that,” is how he put it—but he is interested in finding a way to reach more students with the grants. “I would love to see more students get them,” he said.