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Proposal would make K-14 education the norm
TexasNextStep for Students

A proposal before the 2005 Texas Legislature addresses two of the major challenges facing Texas higher education in the 21st Century: the state's rapid student population growth in areas of the state where there are relatively few four-year institutions of higher education, and the ever-increasing cost of college attendance.

TexasNextStep, a proposal by Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, would jump-start the higher educational process by ensuring that every young Texan has the opportunity to attend two years of public community college, technical college or other lower-division institution in the state. The goal is to make K-14 the norm in Texas, not the exception.

"My goal is crystal clear," said Comptroller Strayhorn. "I want Texas to have the most educated work force in the nation."

The Comptroller first proposed TexasNextStep to the 2003 Legislature as Senate Bill 1200 by senators Eddie Lucio, Jr. and Juan Hinojosa. The bill passed the Senate 24-7, but stalled in the House Higher Education Committee. The proposals before the 2005 Legislature, House Bill 1450 by Rep. David Farabee, and S.B. 722 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. are essentially the same as the 2003 bill.

College in the community
"Right now college is looking like an impossible dream for a lot of Texans," said Vicki Anderson, an education analyst for the Comptroller's office. "Tuition increases in recent years have made college more expensive than ever for struggling families."

Many Texas students, moreover, live in areas with few four-year institutions.

"The problem is especially critical in South Texas and along the Border," Anderson said. "In areas without a four-year institution, community colleges offer a good way for students in those areas to get their college careers started."

Community colleges can be an excellent stepping-stone to a four-year university, Anderson said. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has found no significant difference in performance quality between students who transfer from community college into a four-year institution and those who begin their studies at a university.

Furthermore, community college makes it easy for students to attend college close to home and avoid the significant costs of moving to another city to attend college living either off-campus or in a dormitory. And community colleges often offer courses at flexible times, allowing students to work and go to school at the same time.

Community colleges provide an alternative for first-generation college students who may be uncertain about how well they will handle college life, or who are unwilling to go into debt to cover some of the costs of going away to college, Anderson said.

Money for study
TexasNextStep would guarantee tuition and required fees at in-district rates, which currently average about $1,532 per year at community colleges, and textbook costs of $30 per semester hour, estimated at $900 per year, for every Texas high school graduate.

Students could use the benefit at any public community or technical college as well as at Lamar State College at Port Arthur, Lamar State College at Orange and Lamar Institute of Technology at Beaumont.

Recipients could earn up to 90 semester credit hours leading to a certificate, associate's degree or a transfer program leading to a bachelor's degree. The benefit also would cover remedial courses. TexasNextStep contains features designed to limit costs and maximize returns on the state's investment.

"TexasNextStep is intended to supplement and not replace existing financial aid programs," said Anderson. "It will take over where federal and state financial aid leave off."

Limits and requirements
The benefits also would have time limits. Participants would have three years to use the funding and would have to enroll within 16 months of high school graduation. Students from home schools and other nontraditional schools are also eligible.

"In most cases, that would mean they'd have to enroll by the fall semester of the year after they receive their diploma," Anderson said.

And academic results would matter. Dropped or failed courses would count against the 90-hour limit. The state, not the student, would collect any available funds from a dropped course. Students would have to meet their college's satisfactory academic performance standards to remain eligible for the grant.

Community colleges have responded positively to the idea, said Dr. Reynaldo Garcia, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

"Our institutions are very supportive of the Comptroller's initiative," Garcia said. "Any program that makes community colleges more accessible is good for the state."

Helping 100,000
The Comptroller's office estimates the program would provide assistance with tuition, fees and books for 43,000 "full-time equivalent" students in its first year. Since it requires students to apply for all relevant state and federal aid, however, many would need the program for only part of their costs, such as book costs. Others are likely to attend only one or two classes per semester, due to work and other commitments.

"When these factors are considered, we believe the program could assist as many as 100,000 students," said Anderson. "That would go a long way toward helping Texas achieve its goal of increasing college enrollment, particularly for minority and low-income students."

At an estimated $114.5 million cost in 2007, the first year of the program, and $139.9 million in 2008, its first full year of implementation, TexasNextStep would cost less per student than the other major state-funded aid programs designed to assist students attending four-year institutions. Strayhorn said the investment is necessary.

"As Texas competes more vigorously in world markets, this generation must compete not only with those from New York and California, but Europe and Asia as well," she said. "We must provide our students with the skills needed to succeed in the 21st Century, and the leadership in the state must remain committed to providing lifetime learning and excellence in our workforce training programs to make this happen."

Bruce Wright