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Free for all in Texas? Plan would pay for high school grads to attend college.

AUSTIN, Texas -- Comptroler Carole Keeton Rylander said she has an idea that could allow all Texas high school graduates to attend a public community college, technical school or other two-year institution for free.

"My goal is clear: I want Texas to have the most educated workforce in the nation," Rylander said at a press conference outside an Austin Community College campus.

Any student who graduates from a Texas high school would be eligible for the proposed TexasNextStep, regardless of grades or income. Students would have 16 months from graduation to enroll and three years to complete an associate's degree or certificate program.

But the proposal still needs legislative and gubernatorial approval. Funding also would need to be secured in the state budget to provide money for tuition, books and fees.

Rylander, a Republican running for re-election against Democrat Marry Akins, suggested using 20 percent of the state's lottery revenue, or $150 million, to fund the proposal.

The lottery is expected to bring in an estimated $771 million this year and $762 million in 2003. Revenue is projected to pick back up beginning in 2004, Rylander said.

State law requires that lottery revenue be deposited into the state's Foundation School Fund, which is used to pay for elementary and secondary education.

Rylander would not say what programs, if any, would suffer from using lottery money for her proposal, but she promised to identify new sources of revenue and suggest budget cuts in an upcoming report to lawmakers.

Akins called the proposal "an ill-conceived election year gimmick" that would take money away from public schools.

"Everyone wants to find a way to open the doors of higher education to more Texas students, but it is irresponsible to offer a plan that is not feasible," Akins said.

Rylander said the state would benefit by gaining a trained workforce and by keeping students away from prison or costly government programs such as welfare.

The program also would help students who are not willing or able to attend more expensive, academically tougher four-year universities, particularly in areas where few four-year institutions exist, Rylander said.

Rey Garcia, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, who only recently learned of the idea, said it looked useful at first glance.

"Cost is one of the primary factors that students don't return to community colleges for their second semester," he said.

About 460,000 Texans attend community colleges, where tuition averages $900 a year, Garcia said.

Community colleges are funded by a combination of local taxes, state money, gifts and grants and tuition and fees.

Because Rylander's idea would only provide money for tuition and fees, community colleges would have to bear the burden of any additional costs that come from increased enrollment, Garcia said.

He estimated those costs to be at least $300 million statewide, but said the number of students who participate would determine actual costs.

Richard Fonte, president of Austin Community College, said Rylander's proposal fits into the state's goal of making higher education available to all Texans. That so-called "Closing the Gaps" plan aims to increase college enrollment by 500,000 students by 2015.

"Anything that helps students get started and enter community colleges is a program that can help us close that gap of participation in higher education, which is important to the future of the state," Fonte said.
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Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:May 27, 2002
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