College access and affordability was again the center of debate at Wednesday’s Higher Education Senate Committee hearing.
Senate Bill 885, authored by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, would limit TEXAS Grant awards to be applied only to tuition, fees and textbooks.
“Currently, awards are given to cover the cost of attendance which includes room, board, transportation and personal expenses,” Seliger said. “(SB) 885 eliminates the possibility of using those funds for non-educational expenses that can not really be monitored or controlled.”
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he had concerns about restricting the funds to solely educational purposes. West said he thinks students will be deterred from attending an institution of higher education if they can’t afford things such as transportation, and room and board.
Raymund Paredes, the commissioner of higher education, said the number of students eligible for the TEXAS Grant has continued to increase, and that with current budget projections, they can only afford to cover tuition, fees and books with the grant program.
“The most important thing is to make sure you give needy students enough money to go to school,” Paredes said. “You can’t cover all their expenses, but at least give them the minimum to enroll in university.”
By adopting this bill, Paredes said TEXAS Grants would be able to fund these expenses for about 87 percent of eligible students. Seliger said this legislation would make TEXAS Grant money available to 5,000 more students across the state.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he shares West’s concerns that the minimum amount of assistance may not be enough to help some students afford college.
“The bottom line is we’re way too stingy when it comes to trying to help the folks that need the help going to college,” Watson said. “I worry that we do this in the name of tough budgets, but we do it over and over and over again to the point that we may be spreading a little bit a long way, but it’s not going to be enough to achieve the goals we claim we want to achieve.”
Government junior Mariadela Villegas said her TEXAS Grant primarily goes toward tuition, but any funding left over goes to help with room and board. Without this aid, Villegas said she wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Austin and go to UT.
“I’m not using the money to party or anything, I’m using it for my education and living here,” Villegas said. “It’s still going toward me being able to study here.”
Lisa Blazer, UT San Antonio senior associate vice president of student affairs, said her school tries to provide aid to cover room and board through other resources if they aren’t covered by Pell or TEXAS grants.
“What we are finding is, if we can’t cover a good portion of room and board to help with those costs, they simply won’t come to our campus,” Blazer said.
Two other provisions in SB 885 would prevent work study income from counting against a student’s financial aid and clarifies eligibility requirements for the TEXAS Grant.
SB 885 was left pending in committee along with Senate Bill 886, a similar bill that would extend the provisions in SB 885 to the Texas Education Opportunity Grant program for community college students.