For higher education issues, it appears that “productivity” is to this session what “tier one” was to 2009.

House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who two years ago passed landmark legislation establishing a seven-school competition to catapult the state’s next national research university, recently filed a trio of bills aimed at getting more bang for each buck invested in higher ed. He’s calling them the Higher Education Outcomes-Based Funding Act, the TEXAS Grant College Readiness Reform Act and the Higher Education Productivity Act. That’s House Bills 9, 10 and (much further down on the list) 1460, respectively.

“The times call for it,” Branch says, “I think there’s a real sentiment that, in higher education, costs have risen too high for too long. Now we need to have higher ed send a message that they can be more efficient and focus more on outcomes.” That’s why, Branch says, the first two bills — which he calls “the major thrusts” — were granted such low bill numbers by Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, moving them to near the front of the line for consideration.

HB 9 would implement a much-discussed change to the formulas that determine funding for each college and university. Currently, public funding for institutions is allocated according to the number of students that enroll at the beginning of a semester. The bill would allow the state to tie a portion of that funding to outcomes such as graduation rates.

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The second bill, HB 10, is similar to Senate Bill 28, filed by Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Both tweak the current system of providing Toward Excellence, Access and Success (TEXAS) Grants — the state’s primary need-based financial aid program, which is also facing significant cuts — on a first-come, first-serve basis. Instead, they give priority access to students who have met certain performance criteria in high school.

Zaffirini’s bill would require students to have met one of three criteria: completed a strenuous college preparatory curriculum, finished in the top third of their class or had a B average or completed at least one advanced math course. Branch adds a fourth criteria — passed or were declared exempt from the Texas Success Initiative test, which determines college-readiness — and requires that two of four be met.

HB 1460 is broader in scope, pulling together multiple reforms targeting students, faculty, the Legislature and others.

To free up space in campus facilities, it would require that students earn at least 10 percent of the credits toward their degree via something other than traditional lecture and seminar courses, including summer courses, online courses and internships. It also requires them to submit for approval and then follow a degree plan laying out the path toward their degree. As for faculty, it calls for them to spend more time in the classroom. If it passes, each institution, beginning in the 2013-14 school year, would be required to ensure that the average faculty classroom instruction workload is 10 percent greater than the average in similar institutions during the current school year.

“It’s all about the shared responsibility,” Branch says. “Everyone needs to pick it up a little bit given the times we’re in.”

Additionally, the bill eliminates some legislatively mandated reporting for universities. Branch anticipates that as the legislation moves through the process, more reporting mandates will be added to the list for elimination, and more reforms will be added to the bill as a whole.

Branch says he expects that the package of bills, especially HB 9 and HB 10, will have the support of the governor and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. As for HB 1460, he says, “There may be some groups that don’t like certain elements of that, but we can have a good dialogue about how to improve the bill as we go through.”

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