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In a year of cuts, the Texas Legislature boosted financial aid for college students

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Matthew Watkins, The Texas Tribune

AUSTIN — Attempts to freeze tuition may have stalled out at the Texas Legislature this year, but lawmakers did take one quiet step toward addressing college affordability: They gave the state's biggest financial aid program a boost.

The austere state budget currently awaiting Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's signature includes a 10 percent funding hike for Texas' main method of helping needy students attend four-year colleges. That money will address the aid program's biggest shortfall — that there's not enough money to give grants to everyone who qualifies. Advocates say that's a much-needed boost as cost of college continues to rise.

This year, about 15 percent of students who were eligible for a Toward Excellence, Access and Success Grant, or TEXAS Grant, didn't get one. Next year, state officials say, that share should be cut in half.

"We will be able to fund about 92 percent of eligible students," said Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner. "We would love to be at 100 percent, but we'll settle for 92."

The program was created in 1999 to cover full tuition and fees for the state's neediest full-time university students. In its first year, it did so for all 6,108. But this decade, the state has had to pull back on its ambitions as tuition has gone up and the number of poor students has increased.

The Tribune reported this March that more than 66,000 students were receiving the grants in 2015, but the average reward had dwindled to 58 percent of tuition and fees and many students who should have qualified were being left out.

For much of the session, things looked like they might get worse. Powerful lawmakers introduced legislation that would have capped the amount of each grant in order to spread lesser amounts of money around farther. And the original versions of the budget produced by the House and Senate didn't include any additional funding for the program.

If those plans had gone through, the average award amount would have likely shrunk, and the share of qualified students who would have lost out on the grant was expected to rise from 15 percent to 43 percent by 2019, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The decision to increase funding came near the end of the session. Prior to that point, the Senate had upped its proposed amount by only $45 million, while the House hadn't called for any significant increase. But during negotiations to iron out differences between the two chambers' spending plans, lawmakers chose to go above and beyond what either side had proposed. In the end, they added $71 million, bringing the total proposed spending on the program over the next two years to $786 million.

"With the cost of college skyrocketing for families across the state, there was a strong sentiment in both the House and Senate to provide additional financial aid resources to help individuals seeking to further their education," said Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, who chairs the House subcommittee focused on education spending. "The decision to increase funding by over $70 million shows the Legislature's determination not to allow Texas' most critical resource — our students — to fall behind simply for financial reasons."

The increase was welcome news for universities and higher education advocates. But some warned that the state needs to go further if it can be expected to meet its goal of 60 percent of its young people earning a postsecondary degree by 2030. Nearly two-thirds of school-aged children in Texas come from low-income families. And the grant doesn't cover part-time students or other nontraditional students.

"The job is not done when we get to 100 percent of eligible students served," said Garrett Groves, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.