This article was researched and written by Texas Monthly legislative intern Katherine Stevens. During his testimony to the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes detailed the damage cuts to higher education funding will inflict upon Texas families and students, particularly the loss of financial aid. Paredes was emphatic about his concern that first generation college students, most of whom are poor and belong to racial minorities, will be deterred from higher education because of lack of financial assistance, undermining the state’s “Closing the Gaps” initiative. Then Patrick entered the discussion with an entirely different take. Patrick objects to the practice used by many universities to increase financial aid by pooling a portion of tuition payments from some students, with a portion of the payments set aside to provide financial aid to other students. Patrick describes this process as an “onerous, backdoor tax” on college tuition fees. A student whose family is paying tuition, Patrick argues, shouldn’t have to contribute to educate another family’s child. He would eliminate financial aid derived from tuition payments, resulting–he says–in reduced tuition costs for everyone. “College education should not be out of reach for the poor,” Patrick said. “But it also should not be out of reach for middle class, and the middle class should not be paying for the poor.” It’s hard to argue otherwise. Patrick’s SB 444 would repeal the statute that allows for universities to set aside 20 percent of a student’s tuition to provide financial aid for the institution’s undergraduate student body. Such funds pay for now-gutted grants, scholarships, work-study programs, student loans, and student loan repayment assistance. The Senate draft budget carves $431 million out of financial aid, providing only enough money to continue to fund those students who currently receive it. No new students will be eligible for state-funded financial aid in the 2012-2013 biennium. The fight over tuition set-asides and financial aid is a reminder of how much clout the state’s universities have lost during the Perry governorship. In the budget crunch year of 2003, universities were given the authority to set their own tuition. Ever since, the universities’ ability to chart their own course has been eroded by legislative mandates, the latest being Perry’s newly decreed four-year tuition freeze. So the state’s major universities are in the untenable position (if Patrick’s bill passes) of being unable to raise tuition, unable to pool tuition to stretch financial aid, and unable to secure any other state funding.
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