A Better Way to Do Free College in Texas

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Higher education is a critical driver of economic progress and family financial stability in Texas. However, the cost of higher education has been consistently increasing while the Texas Legislature has decreased the state’s overall investment in higher education, creating a college affordability crisis.

To address the crisis and encourage student enrollment, many cities, community college districts and states across the country, have enacted programs that allow for free community college, or College Promise Programs, for students who meet certain income and education criteria. States that have such programs include New York, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

Last-Dollar vs First-Dollar Scholarships

We can generally divide free community college programs into two categories, last-dollar and first-dollar scholarships. Last-dollar free community college scholarships provide assistance to those who qualify only after applying other financial resources, such as federal grants and scholarships. First-dollar College Promise models provide scholarships before applying any federal grant aid or scholarships.

First-dollar scholarships provide more benefit to students and families because the federal aid and scholarships students receive can apply to any remaining college fees or cover the other critical costs of higher education such as transportation, books, and housing.

Proposed State-Wide Free Community College

Two new bills at the Texas Legislature are bringing increased interest and exposure to college promise models. Senate Bill 33 would establish a statewide Texas Promise Grant program at public two-year institutions. Senate Bill 32 would establish a Texas Promise Grant program at public four-year universities in Texas.

To be eligible for the two-year Texas Promise Grant under the requirements that SB 33 proposes, students must:

  • be Texas residents;
  • have graduated high school in the last year;
  • enroll in an associate degree or a certificate program;
  • be enrolled at least half-time;
  • and have applied for available financial assistance.

As proposed, the two-year Texas Promise Grant (SB 33) is a last-dollar scholarship. A concern with last-dollar models like SB 33 is that the primary beneficiaries of these programs would be students from families with higher incomes, though these types of grants are generally meant to help students who need financial assistance the most.

Students with the lowest incomes are eligible for federal Pell grants, which often cover the full cost of tuition, especially at community colleges. A first-dollar scholarship would provide aid to students with the lowest incomes in combination with other aid they receive. However, the currently constructed first-dollar scholarship program (SB 33) leaves the lowest income students without the additional assistance they need to cover the full range of the costs of college. SB 33 does include a minimum award amount of $1,000, which partially addresses this concern.

Non-Traditional Students

SB 33 is a good start, but CPPP would encourage legislators to include non-traditional students who don’t enroll in postsecondary education immediately after high school and may instead acquire work experience. The proposed two-year Texas Promise program, however, is only eligible to students who graduated high school in the last year.

Texas is the lowest performing state in the country for high school equivalency achievement, and there are 3.46 million Texans over the age of 18 without a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Texas Promise could be a factor for Texans without high school credentials returning to school and should include adult students who have been out of school for more than a year.

In Tennessee, for example, returning adult students receive a last-dollar scholarship for community college through a successful program called Tennessee Reconnect. The Texas Legislature could enact a similar program to account for adults seeking postsecondary education.

Nontraditional students may also opt to return to school part-time in order to maintain their financial situation as attending school full time without working is not financially feasible for many. As written, SB 33 requires at least half-time enrollment to maintain grant eligibility, which would allow nontraditional students the flexibility they need to continue working while pursuing postsecondary education.

Texas has an ambitious 60x30TX higher education strategic plan, aimed at ensuring 60 percent of Texan adults between the ages of 25 and 34 earn a postsecondary credential by 2030. To achieve the plan’s goals, the promise of free two-year college should extend to the millions of Texas adults who may want to continue their education.

Existing Texas Promise Models: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio Areas

Texas already has several local college promise models. The Dallas Promise Model provides a last-dollar scholarship to Dallas County Community College District institutions for students who come from 43 high schools across 10 districts in the Dallas area. To qualify, students have to spend their full senior year at a qualifying institution and graduate. There is a separate program, known as Rising Star Dallas, for students who did not attend a Dallas Promise high school and requires students to demonstrate financial need. The Dallas Promise program has had promising outcomes, including an eight percent increase in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion, a key instrument for ensuring college attendance. Dallas Promise could reach as many as9,000 student participants.

In the Houston area, Lone Star Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program that covers the full balance of tuition after students receive federal Pell Grants and scholarships. To qualify, students must reside in the district, be seeking their first degree, complete 12 hours of coursework every spring and fall semester, maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete 15 hours of community service each spring and fall semester.

Additionally, San Antonio is reported to soon have a similar program in the Alamo Community College District that could serve up to 16,000 students.

College Promise Model Cautions

While College Promise models could be a great instrument for improving college affordability, leaders must implement them carefully to ensure equity and success. A common concern with College Promise models is that they are largely tuition-focused, especially the last-dollar ones, and fail to address the other significant costs of college outside of tuition.

Other researchers cite concerns of financial constraints pushing low-income students and students of color into certain types of institutions instead of those students being steered to the appropriate institution to match their academic ability. This problem is called “undermatching.”

Many states have implemented college promise models, and Texas should follow suit, especially if legislators hope to meet 60x30TX goals. While any assistance for college affordability is great, if Texas wants to maximize outcomes, legislators should implement equitable College Promise models that go beyond tuition costs alone.

Ashley Williams joined the Center as an Economic Opportunity Policy Fellow in 2018 and focuses on postsecondary education and immigration. She is dedicated to intersectional mixed-methods work and previously researched the disparate impact of high-cost online lending on communities of color and women. Ashley earned a Master of Social Science from UCLA in 2018 and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2016, where she received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Business Honors and Finance and a Bachelor of Arts in African and African Diaspora Studies.

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