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Questions in Higher Ed Coordinating Board's Future

Even if the odds of its continued existence are high, the ground is being laid for a very serious conversation about the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s structure and operations when lawmakers convene next session.

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In reviewing the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and considering its future, the Sunset Advisory Commission concluded that it should continue to exist for at least another 12 years.  That’s the good news.

Then there’s everything else.  Even if the odds of its continued existence are high, the ground is being laid for a very serious conversation about the coordinating board’s structure and operations when lawmakers convene next session.

The latest bruise to the coordinating board’s ego is a report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, commissioned last session. Legislators were willing to pay up to $350,000 (the final bill ended up being much less) for a consultant to tell them whether or not — as some lawmakers already sensed — they needed an organization other than the coordinating board to focus community colleges.

The short answer was, “Yes.” But the report put it this way: “Important constituents have lost faith in the agency’s ability to play the role of state system administrative body for community colleges and simultaneously fulfill its mission as the oversight agency for all postsecondary education in the state.”

The report recommended creating a temporary state agency, for an annual cost of no more than $1.5 million, to coordinate community colleges until the coordinating board rebuilds enough trust to get those functions back. It will certainly send a strong signal if the conservative, government expansion-averse Legislature follows that advice.

With most freshmen in Texas already enrolled in two-year colleges and many more being encouraged to attend to take advantage of the lower tuition rates there, the schools are likely to be central to the state’s higher education planning. 

Fred Heldenfels, the coordinating board chairman, disputed the conclusions in a letter he issued to everyone who received the report. He wrote that the authors neglected to interview key lawmakers and coordinating board leaders, including him. In most cases, they talked instead to staffers. The authors stand by their report.

But that’s not the only brushfire threatening the coordinating board’s reputation.  The Sunset report, while it concluded that Texas still needs the agency, also found that the agency “makes major decisions in isolation” and has a culture that “makes it difficult for the agency to foster a collaborative environment essential for moving the state forward on shared higher education goals.”

This week, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes took to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial page to clarify that federal and state policies, not coordinating board mismanagement, that led to more than $30 million in student loan money being left on the table in 2010-11.

Paredes wrote that the coordinating board has been aggressive in pushing colleges and universities to improve and making proposals that depart from the status quo, and he acknowledged “these efforts may lead to some tension.”

And it looks like that tension will sustain until 2013 — if it doesn’t worsen.

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