A Perfect Storm

Last week the Senate passed its budget and the House continued negotiations on its version. The picture, at least as far as the Senate version is concerned, is bleak for higher education. Calling it a “perfect storm,” the Texas Tribune noted the “top three sources of revenue for Texas public universities are all being targeted for reductions or freezes by federal or state government leaders.” House Speaker Joe Straus has acknowledged the Senate cuts are too deep saying they would “have a pretty severe impact on higher education.” The House budget, which taps $2.5 billion from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to avoid draconian cuts to higher education, will be voted on later this week. Outside interest groups are threatening lawmakers who support using the fund.
 
In an op-ed that appeared on editorial pages around the state, UT Austin President Greg Fenves highlighted how improving graduation rates can reduce student debt. “The effectiveness of a university should be measured by the number of students it lifts up and supports. To be a great university in 2017, an institution must support opportunities for all of the students it admits from day one and strive for 100 percent graduation.” Through a series of programs and a renewed focus on supporting student success, UT’s four year graduation rate went from 50.6 percent in 2011 to 60.9 percent in 2016 with a goal of reaching 70 percent for the class of 2017.
 
In a letter to the editor of the Houston Chronicle, former UT System board of regents chairman Charles Miller criticized efforts in the legislature to eliminate special items from the budget (the Senate eliminated special items for higher education). He writes, “The current approach of whacking away at such invaluable programs is a disastrous way to fund higher education. This shameful way of allocating resources has a hint of antagonism to higher education and comes across as punitive. Someone in leadership needs to show up and change this course of destructive behavior.”
 
Texas A&M this week announced a program called Pioneers Scholars, which will award up to $5,000 per year for students enrolling in its Higher Education Center in McAllen. Students have to be admitted, accept the offer to participate in the inaugural class and “remain in good standing, academically and behaviorally.” The scholarships are available for up to four years.
 
KXAN, the NBC affiliate in Austin, produced a short documentary this week that looks at the current state of higher education tuition in Texas. The piece looks back at tuition deregulation and to the present debate over re-regulation and whether lawmakers or the universities can best set tuition to meet the institutions’ needs.

Week of April 2, 2017

Latest Updates

  • Big Government, Top 10 Percent and Tom Brady

    In a push to regain more state control of higher education, a number of bills have been introduced this Session that would limit individual institutions’ authority and give power back to The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The Texas Tribune cited a number of efforts from tuition increases to regional expansions and new programs, which have made lawmakers rethink a 2013 move that limited the powers of the Coordinating Board under the belief that individual institutions could best make decisions about their campuses. Raymund Paredes, whose office stands to regain old power and add in some new res[responsibilities if some of these bills pass, supports the moves. “We need some oversight,” he said, “and I think the coordinating board was intended to fill that role.”
     
    One of a number of higher education bills passed by the Senate this week included a revision to the top 10 percent law, which would allow all universities (not just UT Austin) to cap at 30 percent the number of students admitted under the law. This bill is a step back from earlier efforts to repeal it altogether, in what State Sen. Kel Seliger, higher ed chair and the bill’s author, said was a response to “political realities.” Some lawmakers have expressed concern that eliminating the automatic admissions policy would have an adverse impact on diversity. But Seliger has questioned if this is a proper role for the state. “Is it the role of government to run the admissions department of any university?” he said. “It’s just another example of big government.”
     
    One of the nine researchers headed to Texas as a result of the Governor’s University Research Initiative (GURI) is chemical engineering professor Joan Brennecke, who UT Austin was able to recruit from Notre Dame. Brennecke specializes in researching how to make fossil fuels “greener” and will bring with her a lab, equipment, and endless possibilities for innovation and commercialization that will attract new talent and industry to Texas. “It is really amazing that [GURI] exists,” Brennecke said. “I don’t know of any other states where the state is committed to attracting top people into their academic institutions and is committed to doing that by putting their money behind what they say.” However, the Legislature has neglected to fund GURI for the next biennium, something that may change when House and Senate budget negotiators begin meeting in the coming weeks.
     
    John Sharp may be on track to be the Texas A&M System’s longest serving chancellor. His contract isn’t up until 2020, but this week regents have submitted a proposal to extend his contract through 2023. The proposal does not include a pay increase. Citing the “tough decisions” the Legislature is making about university budgets, the regents cite transparency and consistency of leadership as important for the system moving forward. Using a professional sports analogy, [Regent Charles] Schwartz said the extension is an opportunity to "lock in a high performer at the current level." "The Patriots don't get to do that with Tom Brady, and we have an opportunity to do so," Schwartz said.
     
    Both the House and Senate have introduced legislation aimed at reducing teen pregnancy by requiring state institutions of higher education to “develop and implement a strategic plan for the prevention of sexual assault and unplanned pregnancy.” The legislation is based on similar efforts in Mississippi and Arkansas, which rank number one and three respectively, when it comes to teen pregnancy. Texas has the fifth highest rate of teen pregnancy nationally, a statistic, which has long term impacts on our economy. “If we want an educated workforce in Texas, students have to stay in school to get an education. And the reality is that the burden of being a teen parent makes that nearly impossible.”

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  • “Eating Your Seed Corn”

    Ahead of conference committees to hammer out differences between the House and Senate budgets, Columnists and editorial writers around the state have been lambasting the deep cuts to higher education proposed in the Senate version. Chris Tomlinson of the Houston Chronicle wrote, “The technical term is ‘eating your seed corn.’ That's what Texas state senators proposed when they voted to gut public universities, drive away talented scientists and stunt the future workforce …” The San Antonio Express-News wrote, “Higher education is an investment with the potential for tremendous returns for students and the state. It’s a false calculation to think reducing higher education funding is in the best interest of a state looking to grow its economy.”

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