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Hinojosa Keeping the Focus on Access

Hinojosa Keeping the Focus on Access
New chair of House higher education subcommittee says the business community needs to partner with colleges.
By Charles Dervarics

In rural south Texas, where unemployment and job opportunity are major issues, U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Texas, has seen first hand the importance of a college education. As the new chair of the House of Representatives’ subcommittee on higher education, the six-term lawmaker says he’s ready to focus attention on issues facing low-income and minority students.

“The rising costs of college mean that the federal government must step in and help,” he says. Hinojosa says he hopes to jump start the process of renewing and strengthening the nation’s main postsecondary education statute, the Higher Education Act. Efforts at a comprehensive renewal of HEA have languished in recent years because of partisan differences and funding concerns.

“Properly funding HEA isn’t just a goodwill gesture,” he says. “Our nation’s future is at stake.”

Hinojosa says his top priorities as chairman are accessibility and affordability — issues he hopes to support through more funding of core programs. For Pell Grants targeted at needy students, he supports an increase in the maximum grant to $6,000 “as soon as possible.” The current top grant is $4,310.

In making a case for more aid, Hinojosa cites the relationship between the cost of education and the cost of prisons. Despite tuition increases, he says, it still costs more to house a prisoner than to educate a student. Hinojosa also is skeptical of arguments that large Pell Grant increases are impractical in the current budget environment. But it will be a challenge, he says, with the “tremendous drain of the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We realize that affordability issues are the ones that offer the biggest and highest obstacles and we want to address that,” he says.

Another passion for the 66-year-old lawmaker is helping Hispanic-serving institutions. In chairing an education task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Hinojosa fought for increases in the federal government’s HSI program. He also helped lead efforts in 1998 to create a separate section of HEA for Hispanic-serving colleges and universities. Since gaining that visibility under Title V of the statute, funding for the federal HSI program has increased from $12 million to $95 million.

“I was probably the one with the biggest megaphone,” he says of House efforts to increase support and visibility for the program.

Hinojosa says he wants to bring program funding for the HSI initiative up to $175 million. He also has sponsored a new plan, the Next Generation HSI bill, that would set aside $125 million to support graduate education at these institutions. He says the rationale for such action is clear. Despite major population growth, Hispanics earn less than 5 percent of all master’s, doctoral and first professional degrees.
HSIs could use the graduate funds to purchase books or laboratory and telecommunications equipment, upgrade education materials or pay for the construction and renovation of facilities.

If enacted into law, the proposal would give HSIs two pots of money — including one for graduate education — similar to the U.S. Department of Education’s programs that support historically Black colleges and universities.

Hinojosa says he strongly supports federal initiatives for HBCUs and tribally controlled colleges and universities, two other institutions with their own Education Department funding programs. “We have seen what happens when you increase federal investment in HBCUs, HSIs and tribal colleges,” he says, as more students gain access to higher education.

Businesses also need to take a stronger role in education, he says. On this issue Hinojosa speaks from experience. Before his election to Congress, he was president and chief financial officer of family-owned H&H Foods and the board chair for South Texas Community College.

Hinojosa says he has seen the benefits of business-college relationships in his district. He praises new partnerships between community colleges and manufacturers in the region that have expanded job opportunities. A new regional project, Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development, is using
federal seed money to build the region’s manufacturing infrastructure.

On a recent trip to China, Hinojosa also saw first-hand the results of a close working relationship between the private sector and colleges. “It’s amazing how business partners with education,” he says. “Businesses are putting in much more money [into higher education] than in the U.S.”

While responsibility for this issue extends far beyond his subcommittee, Hinojosa says he wants to support efforts to increase business support. Education “is the best investment that business and industry can make,” he says.

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