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UT President Responds to Obama's Affordability Push

University of Texas President Bill Powers says he supports President Obama's recent push toward performance-based funding, but he says the devil will be in the details.

University of Texas at Austin President, William Powers - Dec. 14, 2011

In a Friday morning speech at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, President Obama addressed college affordability and higher education reforms, which have been hot topics in Texas throughout the last year.

"We are putting colleges on notice," he said, echoing a sentiment from his recent State of the Union address. "You can't assume that you’ll just jack up tuition every single year. If you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down."

Administrators at the University of Texas at Austin have proposed raising tuition by 2.6 percent in each of the coming academic years, but UT President Bill Powers says he believes the university is still heeding Obama's call.

"If the measures are right, we're on the right side of that challenge," Powers told the Tribune, noting that among their 12-institution peer group, UT's tuition costs are the eighth-highest.

Powers said the overall take-away from Obama's speech was a move toward funding that is based on performance, which he said he supports. "If we are going to take any kind of money, certainly tax dollars, with an idea that we're actually trying to accomplish some things with that, we'd better pay attention to: Are we actually accomplishing those things?" he said.

In his remarks, Obama laid out two new incentive programs designed to encourage cost reduction. One is a $55 million "First in the World" competition that will reward projects at individual colleges. The other is modeled after the recent Race to the Top competition the federal government structured for public education. It will set aside $1 billion to reward state policies that support and encourage innovation in higher education.

Obama said, “States have to do their part by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. … We know that these state budget cuts have been the largest factor in tuition increases at public colleges over the past decade.”

His sentiment was echoed in Texas today by state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, in a press release noting that the University of Texas at San Antonio has proposed increasing tuition from $2,891 per semester to $3,004 this fall and again to $3,121 in the fall of 2013.

"Now that universities have made their own budget cuts, they have little choice but to raise tuition if they want to maintain a quality education for their students," Villarreal said in a statement. "If Texans believe our young people deserve better, they need to tell legislators they want the state to invest in our schools and pursue a vision of Texas that includes educated children prepared for the future."

The original Race to the Top initiative for public education was not popular with Texas leaders, particularly the governor, who refused to participate in a federal program that forced changes to state policy. 

"I don't want to in any way suggest that there aren't difficult issues to sort through," Powers said, noting that issue among them.

Another sticking point could be the metrics used in President's initiatives to determine success, which remain to be seen. "Whether this is successful and well-received or not successful will depend very much on the details," Powers said.

For the last year, Texas higher education observers have been at odds in high-profile debates over how to measure and improve productivity and affordability at the state's colleges and universities. The debate is also raging beyond the Texas borders, Powers said.

"That debate will go on," he said. "There are differences about what outcomes we're looking for from the different tranches of our education system."

As for his own position, Powers said he's been consistent. "We ought to, and I have, supported reform, change and emphasis on: Are we producing the outcomes that we want to produce, and are we doing it in as cost-effective a way as we can?" he said.

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