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Texas governor proposes sweeping education reform package.

AUSTIN. Texas (AP) -- Gov. Rick Perry has outlined one of the most sweeping higher education reform proposals in the nation. calling for cash incentives for universities to push students to graduation and mandatory exit exams to track how much students are learning.

The plan would increase higher education funding by $1.7 billion, including a huge expansion of the B-On-Time loan program, which forgives loans for students who graduate college in four years with a B average.

"If lawmakers adopt this plan the ultimate result will be a higher education system that is more affordable, more accountable and more focused on meeting the needs of tomorrow's global marketplace," Perry said

University administrators and national higher education experts heralded the plan as a visionary answer to many of the financial problems colleges face. But critics, including several key Democratic lawmakers, said the proposal relies too heavily on loans instead of grants and could hurt students who have to work their way through school.

One of the key provisions is the $350 million pay-for-performance measure that would let colleges earn money for graduating students and getting them to perform well on exit exams. The funding is meant to bolster Texas' effort to increase the number of undergraduate degrees and certificates awarded annually to 171,000 by the end of the decade.

Universities would get a cash reward for each student who graduates, with bonuses available for students who major in science-or math-related fields or come from a disadvantaged background. Community and technical colleges would get rewards for awarding certificates and associate degrees or sending students on to four-year universities.

Perry estimated the average reward would be about $2,200 per university graduate and about $1,200 per community college graduate or transfer.

To ensure universities were holding graduates to high standards, students would have to take a professional licensing test in their field, an end-of-course exam related to their major or a general knowledge test. They wouldn't have to pass to graduate, but better scores would mean bigger rewards for their universities.

While there's a growing national push for measuring how much students learn in college. Texas would be the first state to require an exit exam for every student, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent and nonpartisan group.

"It's the right idea at the right time," Callan said. "It's just going to take a lot of work to figure out how to make it work when it hits the ground."

But state Rep Garnet Coleman. a Democrat from Houston, said the state can't measure the quality of a college education with a single exam.

"Instead of encouraging critical thinking, we encourage schools to deal with rote memorization and test taking," he said.

Perry also wants to overhaul the state's financial aid program, shifting some grant money to loan-based programs and increasing overall funding by $362.8 million, or 60 percent. The B-On-Time program would grow from $20.7 million in 2006-07 to $405.3 million in 2008-09.

Three existing aid programs, including the popular Texas Grant program, would be consolidated into one new Tuition Assistance Grant. Students would have to maintain a 3.0 average and complete 24 credit hours a year to remain eligible, and they would have to repay the money if they took more than five years to complete a four-year program.

Currently, students in four-year programs can only receive Texas Grant funding for five years, but they don't wind up shouldering the debt if they can't finish on time. And students only have to maintain a 2.5 GPA to receive the money.

The financial aid proposals troubled state Sell. Rodney Ellis. a Houston Democrat who wrote the legislation creating the Texas Grant program in 1999. Forcing students to rely more heavily on loans and threatening to revoke grant money if they don't graduate on time could keep many poor students from enrolling in college. he said through a spokesman.

Critics also complained that the proposal included no provision for lowering tuition rates, which have increased an average of 40 percent since lawmakers gave schools tuition-setting authority in 2003.

Another concern was the proposed elimination of special items in the higher education budget, including the South Texas Board Initiative. That program was adopted in 1989 to help border universities compete with other institutions.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo who chairs the Senate's higher education subcommittee, said that part of the plan could hurt several institutions in her district and the surrounding area.

Still. several university administrators said the proposal would begin tin important conversation about the future of higher education in Texas.

"There isn't any greater investment that will yield better results or any greater need that we have in Texas than to make sure we have the strongest possible higher education system in the country," said University of Texas at Arlington President James D. Spaniolo.

REFORM SUMMARY

Universities would get a cash reward for each student who graduates. Community and technical colleges would get rewards for awarding certificates and associate degrees or sending students on to four-year universities.
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Title Annotation:around the nation
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Feb 26, 2007
Words:854
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