Raymund Paredes

Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes provides testimony regarding proposals for various budget items, such as student financial aid, to the Texas House of Representative Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday morning. 

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

While questions linger over the possibility of fixed-rate tuition, student finances may be further altered if state legislators choose to modify the dispersal of TEXAS grants to benefit incoming freshmen.

The Texas House of Representatives Appropriations Subcommittee met Tuesday to publicly hear testimony regarding proposals for various budget items such as student financial aid recommendations and education research funding.

TEXAS grants are awards of up to $7,400 per year for financially needy students who have an expected family contribution less than or equal to $4,000. Raymund Paredes, Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner, said while the need for more TEXAS grants for eligible incoming students has increased to 73 percent over the last five years, the System will only be able to support 22 percent of these students the way the money is released now. 

“To fully fund the TEXAS Grant program for the [2014-2015] biennium would be $1.2 billion,” Paredes said. “There’s nothing of course that I’ve heard from members of the Legislature that suggests that we can approach that number. In that context, it seems we have to make some modifications to the program and make it run somewhat differently.”

Paredes said the most efficient way to use TEXAS grant funds is to award the majority of the money to a higher number of eligible incoming freshmen, as a way to incentivize them to come to the University to begin with.

“We’ve found that initial awards are more important than continuing awards,” Paredes said. “Students who don’t receive an award are discouraged from going to college altogether, whereas students who receive that initial award and make it to their junior or senior year of education will find a way to finish. We have to adjust the balance.”

Biochemistry freshman Miguel Torre received a TEXAS grant this semester and said giving fewer students money later in their college career would put students in a tough spot later on and potentially result in higher transfer rates out of the University.

“It would be a good initial thing, but then I’d probably have to take out another loan or get a job,” Torre said. “You’re excited as a freshman, so I think that would give you more of a reason to come in, but you might regret it later. Transfer rates from here would be big, because it’s expensive here.”

The Legislative Budget Board presented the committee with an overview of seven higher education funds, which are awarded to eligible institutions to increase excellence in instruction and research, according to the documents submitted to the committee.

State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said he was in talks with Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, to determine whether five of these research funds could be consolidated into one fund with multiple tiers to benefit each eligible university. 

The five funds are the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund, the Research Development Fund, the Higher Education Fund, the Texas Research Incentive Program and the Norman Hackerman Advanced Research Program.

“We put all [these] different programs in place, and now we have some people who think they’re qualified but they’re not being included in the appropriation,” Otto said. “I think it’s maybe time to get the policy guys to relook at this so we know who we’re benefitting when we appropriate the money.”

Published on February 20, 2013 as "Representatives reexamine Texas grants".

Members of the House Higher Education Committee listen as Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, discusses the importance of improving the state’s higher educational system Wednesday.

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

While Texas is currently on track to reach targets intended to improve higher education in the state, some hurdles remain.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is the state agency charged with overseeing Texas’ higher education policy. In 2000 the coordinating board enacted Closing The Gaps by 2015, a plan for Texas higher education institutions to reach measurable goals to put the state on par with the rest of the country. The goals include increasing enrollment, undergraduate degrees, federal research funds and the national reputation of Texas’ higher education institutions.

Board commissioner Raymund Paredes told the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday that the state’s higher educational system is not improving at a fast enough rate.

“In terms of public higher education in Texas, we’re getting better, we’re not getting better fast enough,” Paredes said.

The state aimed to enroll an additional 630,000 students in higher education institutions by 2015. As of 2012, Texas higher education institutions had enrolled 540,546 more students than in 2000, according to Paredes’ presentation.

Paredes said this number was above the coordinating board’s target for 2012 but that growth of enrollment has slowed within the past few years. Paredes said the national discussion questioning the value of a college degree and a state law requiring students to receive bacterial meningitis vaccinations may deter potential students from enrolling.

According to Paredes, enrollment of Hispanic and African-American students in state higher education institutions have about doubled since 2000.

Part of the initiative is to increase research funding that Texas universities receive from the federal government. Paredes said the state currently receives 5.9 percent of the federal government’s university research fund budget — sixth behind Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and California — which is short of the 6.5 percent it hopes to reach. 

“We still have a long way to go to be where we want to be,” Paredes said.

Paredes said the state is on track to meet its goal of awarding 210,000 undergraduate degrees or more annually by 2015, as it has awarded 196,561 as of 2012.

“We can enroll as many students as we possibly can, but if they don’t complete their credentials we haven’t accomplished much,” Paredes said.

There were also large increases in minority student graduations, as Hispanic and African-American students received 149 percent and 92 percent more degrees than in 2000.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and committee chairman, said Texas has the opportunity to take the lead in a national economy that has transitioned from an industrial economy to a knowledge-driven economy.

“Will Texas thrive in a knowledge economy the way that Pennsylvania and Michigan thrived during the industrial age … or will we fall back in a knowledge economy — as some of our sisters have that were once mighty economic engines but [are] now no longer?” Branch said.

Printed on Thursday, February 14, 2013 as: Hurdles remain for Higher ed 

Texas could expand access to a financial aid program that benefits thousands of low-income students at UT if it enacts recommendations passed down by the state’s higher education agency.

Raymund Paredes, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board commissioner, told a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on Monday that the TEXAS Grant Program would need $1.3 billion to fully function during the 2014-15 biennium.

“Unless the Legislature is willing to make significant increase in the TEXAS Grant Program every session as demand continues to increase, this program is simply not sustainable in its current form,” Paredes said.

The program serves students whose expected family contribution to their cost of attendance is $4,000 or less, which constitute a large percentage of students graduating from public schools, Paredes said.

“Given that fact, the state simply can’t meet the escalating demand for financial aid under current program operational guidelines and funding levels,” Paredes said.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is asking the Texas Legislature to allocate $719.6 million to the TEXAS Grant Program for the 2014-15 biennium. That amount is about $145 million more than the amount the program would have if the Legislature approved current proposals and $580.4 million less than what Paredes said it would take to fund the program properly.

Additional funds would allow the board to serve a greater percentage of incoming freshmen who are eligible for the grant, according to data provided by the coordinating board.

Current House and Senate proposals allocate $559.5 million to the program for the 2014-15 biennium, the same amount approved during the previous legislative session for the 2012-13 session.  The board also uses about $15 million in donations to fund the program, bringing the total funds available for the program to $574.5 million.

The coordinating board is also asking the Legislature to reduce the maximum amount of individual awards from $7,700 to $5,000 for university students and from $2,640 to $1,325 for community college students.

Fred Heldenfels, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board chairman, said traditional college-age workers have fewer degrees than workers approaching retirement. Heldenfels said the state must encourage younger workers to obtain degrees, partially by reforming how the state distributes financial aid.

“Texas must significantly increase the education and skills of these workers or risk decades of declining competitiveness,” Heldenfels said.

This system only allows the program to give grants to 22 percent of eligible incoming freshmen, according to data provided by the coordinating board. If the Legislature enacted the board’s recommendations, the program could allocate grants to 90 percent of eligible incoming freshmen.

According to the 2011 budget passed by the Legislature, the 2012-13 allocation aimed to serve an estimated 60,114 students in 2012 and 49,907 in 2013. The proposed allocation for the 2014-15 biennium would serve an estimated 77,615 students in 2014 and 85,965 in 2015.

The Legislature allocated $50.7 million to 8,449 students at UT eligible for the grant during the 2012-13 biennium, according to information provided by the Office of Student Financial Services. During the 2010-11 biennium, 7,653 UT students received grants out of the $59.4 million allocated by the Legislature to the University.

State Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, said the state must consider rising tuition costs when discussing how to offset the cost of attendance and how to encourage students to graduate within the time allotted by their degree plan.

“In some cases,” Giddings said, “it appears that we may be locking out those very people, I think, who would make the biggest difference in terms of our society.”

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.

Educators scoffed when Gov. Rick Perry proposed a $10,000 bachelor’s degree in February, but the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is taking steps to make his idea a reality.

The board met Wednesday for the first in a series of discussions on how to create and implement such a plan. Perry said he hopes that up to 10 percent of Texas university students would graduate under the model if it succeeds.

The proposed degree will incorporate online classes and resources, require use of low-cost textbooks and extend credit for relevant internships, work experience and previous knowledge shown with placement tests to dramatically reduce the cost of education.

Van Davis, special projects director for the coordinating board, said in order for the plan to work, it has to be rigorous, targeted, highly structured, competency-based and leverage technology, and it must include multiple pathways and have extensive faculty support.

“We want to create more options for students that keep up the quality that already exists at our institutions,” Davis said. “This is not going to be the degree for every student, but we want to expand their options.”

Governor’s adviser David Young said the $10,000 degree plan is the step Texas needs to make following Closing the Gaps, a higher education plan adopted in 2000 to strengthen student participation, success, excellence and research.

“By 2010, [Texas universities] increased enrollment by 122,000 students,” Young said. “How do we pay for the expansion? Now we have a new challenge.”

At a press conference Wednesday, the board’s commissioner Raymund Paredes said the board will use online schools, such as DeVry University, as models.

Paredes said the plan also needs to incorporate paid internships for academic credit and allow students to apply previous work and experience to course credit.

“This is relevant if you are trying to get a baccalaureate in nursing, and you’ve been a medic in Afghanistan,” Paredes said. “You should be able to receive a lot of credit from that.”

Paredes said the board will work on getting a structured plan together before the next state legislative session begins in 2013.

Deputy Commissioner David Gardner said he was surprised the governor’s proposal during his February State of the State Address was met with skepticism.

Associate communication professor Joshua Gunn said that he supports the plan in concept, but he doesn’t believe it will succeed.

“I think it’s absurd,” Gunn said. “Part of his plan to give people an education with $10,000 requires capping the price of textbooks, but the textbook market is one that professors cannot control.”

Government professor Bryan Jones said in order for the extensive incorporation of online coursework to succeed, professors will have to interact with students either online or in person.