Making higher education accessible, affordable to all Texans
When you grow up on a tenant farm in West Texas, a college education is not always a given. I know because I was part of the first generation in my family to attend college. So when I earned my degree from Texas A&M University, that accomplishment not only brought tremendous pride to my parents, but it also opened a world of opportunity to me and benefits that my children continue to reap. It is a success story that can and should be replicated among many families across this state. It is also an issue of tremendous importance to Texas' economic future as the demand for a highly skilled and educated workforce continues to grow.
The key to meeting this demand - and fulfilling the dreams of countless Texans - is making college accessible and affordable to all our citizens. The good news is that over the past three years we have taken important steps toward improving college accessibility:
* During the last legislative session, we tripled funding for the TEXAS Grant Program to $300 million so that an additional 100,000 Texans with limited financial means can pursue their college dreams.
* We created the TEXAS Grant Two Program to help more Texans get a marketable skill at a two-year college in Texas and passed legislation to expand the pool of computer science and engineering graduates coming out of Texas colleges.
* We made the college-prep curriculum, known as the recommended high school program, the standard coursework in Texas schools beginning with the freshman class of the fall of 2004. This means students will enter college well grounded in the core subjects, making them much more likely to finish their education.
But there is more that must be done. We must make a special effort to recruit students from families with no college history, provide financial assistance to families who need it and expand other innovative programs that make college more accessible. My "Creating Opportunities" initiative lays out an achievable plan to accomplish these goals by making the most of existing resources through sound fiscal policy.
My plan begins with a new $20 million competitive grant program to motivate and assist students who traditionally have not viewed college as a pathway to the future. If we attract more first generation college students to our institutions of higher learning, we know that future generations will follow.
The First Generation Grant Program would direct funds to colleges to recruit, counsel and prepare first generation students for college. Colleges that receive these competitive grants also could use the funds to provide financial aid for first generation students. The funding would be provided through a competitive grant program operated by the Higher Education Coordinating Board using $20 million in federal Workforce Investment Act funds. This would allow grants of up to $500,000 each for at least 40 colleges.
Second, we must address college affordability by revamping the College Access Loan Program, also known as the Hinson-Hazlewood program. By using $150 million in currently unused general obligation bond authority, we can make available loans up to $5,000 a year at zero percent interest for students from low- and middle-income homes to pursue a college education. This would help an additional 25,000 students each year attend college.
Other components of my "Creating Opportunities" higher education initiatives include:
* Expanding middle colleges. These programs enable high-school aged students to get a high school diploma and an associate degree while attending a two-year community or junior college. El Centro College in Dallas is the only middle college currently in Texas; however, middle colleges around the country have had enormous success in motivating students to finish high school and go on to complete their undergraduate degrees at four-year institutions.
* Increase participation in work study programs. Texas can triple the number of students in the state's work study program with a modest $5 million investment. Currently, 2,600 students benefit from the Texas work-study program. My proposal will expand participation to 8,200 students.
* Take advantage of technology by expanding the "Virtual College of Texas." My proposal would make several state-of-the-art, core curriculum courses available over the Internet to any student enrolled in a Texas college or university. Courses offered by the "Virtual College" would be recognized by every Texas institution as transferable credit. Expanding this program will provide students with added flexibility to finish their education sooner and save money.
For the first time ever, we have a million Texans enrolled in our colleges and universities. That is a milestone to be celebrated. But we must open the doors of higher learning to more of our citizens. There was a day in Texas when a high school degree was good enough. That day has passed us by. My plan ensures that we will continue our efforts to meet the growing demand for a skilled and educated workforce and train young Texans for the opportunities of tomorrow.