As we continue to fight the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, state leaders should do everything they can to provide relief to Texans struggling to get through this crisis.
For the Texas economy to recover, we need strong public investments in the community colleges, universities, and financial aid programs that form the foundations of opportunity and prosperity for our state.
Instead, the budget proposals from the Texas House and Senate continue the trend of making college less affordable and accessible, shifting costs to students and families through tuition increases and eroded financial aid support.
Texas students have long faced serious college affordability and student debt crises. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Texas students must contend with these hardships in addition to the growing challenges of earning a higher education degree or credential. The rising costs of college, housing, tuition, books, and food security on top of a global pandemic can be overwhelming.
While some Texas students received assistance through the campus-based federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEERs) aid, early exclusionary guidance prevented many undocumented students from accessing the critical support.
While some communities are facing the hardships of the past year disproportionately, the human, social, and economic damage of the pandemic affects each of us. No matter where we come from, what we look like, or how much money we have, we know it’s time to pull together to demand decisive action and strong community investments.
Starting Behind the Line
Before the 2021 legislative session even began, higher education was at serious risk. Despite the many challenges students are facing during the pandemic, lawmakers are considering $306 million in net interim General Revenue cuts from the higher education budget, as part of 5% interim 2020 reductions.
One critical source of financial support for Texas students is the need-based financial aid program, TEXAS Grants. General Revenue budgeted for the TEXAS Grants program in 2020-2021 has been reduced by $43 million ($5 million from 2020 and $38 million from 2021), and the Texas Educational Opportunity Grant (TEOG) Program by $4.8 million; all while students are losing campus jobs and Texas families are seriously impacted by unemployment. While $57 million in federal GEERs dollars were used to offset cuts to the Texas Grant, TEG, and TEOG, these critical grant programs will need significantly more support to help eligible students. These grant programs, even prior to the pandemic, did not serve all eligible students, and as financial conditions worsen, even more support will be needed.
Proposed Budgets in the 87th Legislature
The outcome of the 2021 Texas legislative session, during which lawmakers determine state financial support in 2022 and 2023 for higher education and other state-supported services, will have a significant impact on Texas students now and for years to come.
The Texas House and Senate introduced their budget bills for 2022-2023, laying out draft proposals for how General and other state revenue will be allocated across the state’s many priorities.
The House and Senate starting-point proposals for higher education are similar, with General Revenue, General Revenue-Dedicated (primarily tuition), and other funds recommended at $22.8 billion, a $3.2 billion (12%) decrease from 2020-2021.
But most of the reduction to the All Funds budget category with regards to higher education is due to approximately $3.1 billion less in federal dollars provided for Hurricane Harvey and other 2020-2021 disaster costs. Looking just at General Revenue support for higher education in the 2022-2023 proposals, and comparing it to the funding levels prior to the 5% cuts, colleges are actually losing $85 million (0.5 percent) of state-budget support in the next two years. If dedicated General Revenue (appropriated tuition) is added into the mix, state budget support only drops by $10 million, or 0.1 percent — but it still drops.
Funding Fails to Deliver on Higher Education Needs
The THECB, in its April 2020 preliminary formula funding recommendations for 2022-2023, laid out how much state support would be needed to meet needs of higher education in Texas. Taking into consideration inflation, enrollment growth, and demographic changes, THECB recommended an overall increase for higher education funding formulas of 14.1% (almost $1.3 billion) in 2022-2023, compared to 2020-2021.
In recommending a 0.1% decrease overall (General Revenue and GR-D), both the House and Senate budgets fall significantly short of meeting the higher education needs of Texans. This means Texas is reducing its support for public higher education when Texas students need it now more than perhaps ever.
Students and Families Will Bear the Burden of Under-Funding
What insufficient state funding could mean for Texas students is an increased burden on Texas families forced to pay higher tuition and fees for students to attend college in Texas.
And while less state funding could mean higher tuition, the starting-point state budget could also require a smaller average per-student award for the TEXAS Grant, a critical instrument in helping Texas families pay for higher education.
Both the House and Senate propose $412 million a year for the TEXAS grant in 2022-2023, $22 million less than the originally budgeted 2020-2021 amounts. When comparing the biennialized (two-year average) of students served by the Texas Grants program before the interim cuts, the starting point budget proposes serving about 4,000 fewer students on a biennial basis.
Every Texan Recommends Investing in Our Students
There is still time — and ability — to improve state support for higher education both for institutions and for students, through federal aid, formula support and through financial aid such as the TEXAS Grant program.
In the coming weeks, lawmakers will hold hearings, and committee “mark-ups” will take place through March. Amended budget proposals should pass through the state House and Senate in the spring, and a compromise (“conference committee report”) should come in late May before the regular session ends.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown everyone the value of strong anti-poverty programs that help people pay their bills and put food on the table. While it makes sense to build up the Rainy Day Fund during good times, it is also good economic policy to spend the balances in hard times to help our recovery. Texas lawmakers need to use part of our Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund) to protect investments in higher education and financial aid programs. With $11.6 billion available, lawmakers have more than enough resources to ensure we’re able to protect pathways to economic opportunity for future generations. It makes no sense to balance the budget on the backs of low-income students that represent the future of Texas when much better and more equitable options exist.