Vol 29, Issue 45 Print Issue

In Higher Education, More Bang Without More Bucks

Rep. Dan Branch R-Dallas and Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence & Transparency during meeting on September 21st, 2011
Rep. Dan Branch R-Dallas and Sen. Judith Zaffirini D-Laredo, co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Oversight of Higher Education Governance, Excellence & Transparency during meeting on September 21st, 2011

For higher education in the 83rd Legislative Session, the central theme will be finding ways to get more bang for the same amount of bucks, if not less.

Of the bills filed thus far, the one to watch is most likely House Bill 25 by House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas. If passed as filed, it would tie 25 percent of state funding for undergraduate education to student success measures. You’ll notice the target percentage is the same as the bill number. Branch’s office traded with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, to make that happen — perhaps an indication of the excitement behind it.

The push for what is often referred to as “outcomes-based” funding — as opposed to the current formula, which is based on enrollment — has lasted multiple sessions without much success.  And that was just for 10 percent of funding, which is all the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has recommended in the coming session.

The coordinating board believes that 10 percent is sufficient to encourage improvements, but Branch wants a higher number, noting that Tennessee, which has significantly fewer public universities, is already at 100 percent outcomes-based funding.

The potential for the debate about which metrics to use and whether or not to make this change was on display at a higher education conference held this week by the Texas Association of Business, a strong supporter of the new funding model.


Observing that community colleges have already agreed to the change, TAB President Bill Hammond spoke sternly of four-year institutions that he worries might hold up the legislation. “They need to get on the train,” he said.

In order to make sure money is being put to use effectively, legislators will be revisiting a number of financial aid programs.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the former Senate Higher Education Committee chair, has already filed a bill narrowing the eligibility requirements for the B-On-Time loans, which seek to encourage timely graduations, to four-year university students.

The program, which offers interest-free loans that may be forgiven if certain criteria are met, has suffered from a lack of publicity and was heavily criticized in the coordinating board’s sunset report. With Zaffirini now chairing the Senate committee that oversees the sunset process, the issue is likely to receive significant attention.

So will TEXAS Grants, the state’s primary need-based loan program. According to the coordinating board, with current levels of funding and award amounts, only about 18 percent of eligible students would be able to receive TEXAS Grants.

While no bill has yet been filed, they have recommended a major overhaul to the program, shrinking both the award amount and the number of students eligible to receive it. By spreading money more thinly in a smaller pool, the coordinating board predicts the state will be able to reach 95 percent of eligible students.

As Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, has observed, such a dramatic overhaul would not be necessary if the program was fully funded. But chances of that happening seem low.

Another major theme will be the effort to open up new pathways to a degree, especially those that are more affordable. Along those lines, Branch has filed a bill to ease the transfer process and Gov. Rick Perry has advocated for the expansion of programs that let students advance based on their competency rather than time spent in class. Perry has also famously called for universities to have a four-year flat-rate tuition, though a bill on that issue filed by Branch’s only requires that such a payment plan be offered as an option.

And then there are the bills with the most potential for lively debate. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would sunset the decade-old deregulation of tuition, a concept with bipartisan support. And multiple Republicans have filed, or announced their intention to file, bills that would prevent undocumented immigrants from being eligible to pay institutions’ lower in-state tuition rates.