Group lobbies to keep college affordable

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Despite student activist marches, rallies at the Capitol and sit-down meetings with legislators, students have had mixed results with some of their top initiatives.

Invest in Texas, a committee made up of the Senate of College Councils, Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly, laid out a plan to lobby the legislature to keep UT affordable, academically competitive and gun-free.

Student Government President Natalie Butler said she feels good about the progress of S.B. 29 which passed unanimously in April and will extend university health care plans to include graduate students awarded fellowship.

“I feel really good about its passage, and now there’s really not any controversy around it,” Butler said. “We just have to make sure that it gets through.”

She said the effectiveness of the groups push for a gun-free campus has yet to be determined because legislators still have not made a final decision. The bill stalled in the Senate last month because Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, could not garner enough support. Last week, he tried to add it as an amendment to a general higher education bill, but Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, killed it.

“I really do think student efforts had a lot to do with that bill not passing, but right now, we’re just waiting,” she said. “Some of the legislators are just trying to attach it to bill after bill, but we just have to hope that doesn’t happen.”

When the Invest in Texas campaign began, students asked legislators to not cut the higher education budget at all.
However, Butler said they are now hoping for smaller cuts than those currently on the table. The most recent version of the Senate budget proposed $51 million in cuts to UT.

“Some of the versions have no funding for financial aid at all, and so now, we know that they are going to be cut, but we hope that they are as minimal as possible,” she said. “It sucks that we won’t be able to extend much financial aid, but I really hope it at least provides for TEXAS grant recipients and other state programs.”

Similar to the House’s budget proposal, the Senate budget proposed significant cuts to education, initially reducing financial aid programs by more than $380 million and cutting about $87 million from state and federal money allotted to UT, according to the Senate state budget released in early February.

The financial aid office is now telling students they won’t know what shape their financial aid packages are in until July.

“We cannot provide you a fall-spring financial aid package at this time, as we are in the midst of significant changes at both the federal and state levels,” the office said in a University-wide email.

“Congress and the Texas Legislature are responding to calls for significant cuts in government programs and therefore, have not yet made decisions about funding levels for several financial aid programs — most importantly Pell Grants, TEXAS Grants, Top 10 Percent Scholarships and B-on-Time Loans.”

Although students were told they would still be receiving financial aid for the summer because summer aid comes from funds allocated for the current academic year, human development and family sciences junior Simone Collier said she received “practically” no summer funds for the first time in three years.

Collier said her family estimated lower than it has ever previously been, yet her TEXAS Grant that she has received every year at UT was completely cut. She said she was only offered a Parent PLUS Loan, but her parents cannot accept it.

“This is pressing on me because, as somebody who pays their own way though college already, it makes it much harder,” she said. “I have to go out and get another job now just so I can make it work this summer.”