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Report Questions State's Higher-Ed Priorities

A new study on Texas’ higher-education policy lays out the tough choices that state lawmakers are facing and throws some cold water on one of their prize programs: the initiative to create more tier-one universities.

Students cross a bridge over a resaca on the University of Texas Brownsville and Texas Southmost College campuses on Monday.

A new study on Texas’ higher-education policy that is being released today lays out the tough choices that state lawmakers are facing and throws some cold water on one of their prize programs: the initiative to create more tier-one universities.

With a mere 32 percent of adult Texans older than 25 with at least an associate degree, the study notes, Texas ranks 39th among states. University of Pennsylvania researchers Joni Finney and Laura Perna conducted the study in conjunction with Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy.

“We wanted to look at a large state that had a very fast-growing Latino population, because the country is changing that way, obviously,” Finney told The Texas Tribune. The study is the fourth in a series of five reports they are doing on higher-education policy in different states.

To remain economically competitive, the state needs to produce more graduates, the study says. But public higher education is getting less affordable — according to the report, students in 2009 were paying 72 percent more for college than they were six years prior, when the Legislature deregulated tuition.

“Texas was once known as a state where low financial aid was offset by low tuition,” the authors write in the report. “Now, the low tuition is gone, leaving only low financial aid.”

The state also faces some stark racial and economic disparities in educational attainment, which, unless they are addressed, could exacerbate the state's completion crisis as demographics shift. Despite these many moving parts, Finney did note that the state’s “Closing the Gaps” plan addresses these issues. That plan seeks to bring Texas’ higher-education performance up to par with other states by 2015 — with a broad base support that Finney said she has not found in other states.

But she said the "Closing the Gaps" goals are unlikely to be reached unless the state addresses the financing of community colleges and reconsiders its investment in building more national research universities.

The majority of the state’s first-year college students are in community colleges, and that share is expected to grow. As tuition rises at four-year universities, many students opt — and are even encouraged — to begin at the cheaper two-year institutions.

The report points out that the share of community college expenses covered by state appropriations fell from 61 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2007. And local taxes have not filled the gap. 

Meanwhile, in the last few years, millions have been invested in incentive programs to turn a handful of schools into the next top-tier research universities.  The authors characterize this “ambitious goal” as being at odds with the state’s need to focus on boosting student success. They contend that the tier-one effort reveals “little understanding of the serious policy tradeoffs that must be considered if Texas is to achieve significantly higher levels of educational attainment.”

One of the arguments for creating more tier one universities in Texas is that California has significantly more of them. “I was in California for 15 years,” Finney said, “and if you look at what’s happening now, they have clearly traded off supporting that sector and reducing access to poor and minority people. Does Texas want to make that tradeoff, and do they even realize what it’s going to take to [build more research universities]?”

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who authored the bill that created the tier-one race in 2009, said he didn’t feel that the two goals — creating more research universities and encouraging more students to graduate — were “mutually exclusive.”

Of the tier-one initiative, Branch said, "That is a healthy competition that is good for the brands of those universities, which will attract Texas students to stay in the state and go to those universities. We have a need for colleges and universities that our students desire to go to. "

Branch said that, beyond the questioning of the investment in research universities, much of the analysis resonated with things he has heard as the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. Other careful observers of Texas higher education also said the report was an accurate read of the situation.

“I think they hit the nail on the head that the most important challenge that Texas policymakers need to consider is the education of Hispanic students at every level,” said Harrison Keller, vice provost of higher education policy and research at the University of Texas.

Aims McGuinness, a senior associate with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said that sorting out the state’s priorities and addressing the state's lagging rate of student success are both essential for the state’s future.

“There’s virtually no way the state, at the current level of degree production, can get to globally competitive levels of higher-education attainment,” he said. “And there is no money. I mean, there is no money anywhere.”

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