Granting access to education

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The TEXAS Grant program, not long ago written off as doomed, is undergoing some major reconstruction by the trauma surgeons at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Last year, the Legislature cut funding for the flagship aid program by 10 percent, forcing a painful reconsideration of how the program will distribute its smaller aid pool. While this year’s cuts were dramatic because of their scale, making do with less has almost been a mainstay of the program since its inception. The board reported that the program, which started in 1999, has been underfunded since 2004 because of the ever-increasing numbers of high-need students wanting to pursue higher education in Texas, according to The Texas Tribune. The funding debate last year left the program in such dire straits that the board estimated that only 30 percent of all incoming students eligible for grants will receive them this fall.

The changes being considered by the board are exactly the kind of smart, data-driven adjustments that the Legislature says it wants. Among the results of some impressive data mining are that students are more responsive to financial aid early in their college careers and that financial aid seems to have diminishing returns. These and other findings imply that it is better to give more students smaller awards when they are freshmen and sophomores to promote the highest possible completion rate.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes acknowledged that a key reason these discussions are taking place is to satisfy the Legislature’s call for efficiency in all things educational. To the extent that the changes being proposed are meant to immunize the program from future cuts, they are welcome.

But Paredes also admitted that legislators have established a precedent for cutting funding for a program they haven’t seemed to care much about for a while. Drastic improvements in efficiency cannot be found year after year, and an argument that the Legislature should continue funding the program because of some house cleaning only kicks the ideological can down the road for a few years.

At the core of the debate is the rising cost of tuition in Texas necessitated by a simultaneous decline in state funding. Financial aid is just one of many facets in the continuing debate in the state about who should pay for higher education: the state or the students. Early results suggest that the Legislature prefers the burden to fall on the latter group.

A debate about the efficiency of various parts of the higher education puzzle can only hold this larger question off for so long. For now, the TEXAS Grant program may be able to spend its money more wisely. But that does not address the fundamental fact that this program needs — and has needed for almost a decade: more money to fulfill its basic mission.

Whether the state wants to provide financial aid to needy students is a legitimate policy question that should be addressed. Unfortunately, that debate has been sidestepped in pursuit of the elusive goal of optimization. Because efficiency in higher education is a tricky thing to measure, it is a convenient, nonpartisan reason to cut funding. After all, no one supports “wasteful spending.” But even if the TEXAS Grant program operated at 100-percent efficiency, it would still cost money. Texans deserve a debate that addresses the deeper issue: whether the state government wants to spend that money at all.