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Slowing Enrollment Sparks Fears of Missing Higher Education Goals

According to preliminary data gathered by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the total number of students attending college this fall increased by just 12,000 over the previous year.

Republican leader State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, frowns at a question from editor Evan Smith at TribLive on June 1, 2012.

Academic Shift

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, does not care to hear about the state’s education goals not being met.

“It makes me very sad and frustrated,” Branch said at a recent hearing of the House Higher Education Committee, which he heads. “I get heartburn, and I tend to get cranky.”

At that hearing, Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, outlined Texas’ latest enrollment numbers. According to preliminary data gathered by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the total number of students attending college this fall increased by just 12,000, to about 1.563 million, over the previous year, a significant slowing in the state’s progress toward its objectives.

The state set its growth record in 2009, when fall enrollment climbed by 122,000 in a year. Paredes told the committee he was “stunned” that three years later the growth rate was so much lower. He said he had expected a decline, but he would have been more comfortable with an increase of 30,000 to 40,000 students.

Although Paredes said he was not able to give concrete reasons for the drop, he noted that high-paying, low-skilled jobs in the Eagle Ford Shale and the oil boom in West Texas could be luring many would-be students. He also expressed concern that “apocalyptic accounts” of the rising costs and declining value of a degree could have put many students off.

Much of the decline involved two-year institutions, but Steven Johnson, spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, was less concerned than the commissioner. He said community colleges are still experiencing the third-highest enrollment levels in the state’s history.

“I think it’s a natural kind of ebb and flow,” he said.

Texas is not the only state experiencing a drop in enrollment. According to the United States Department of Education, among more than 7,000 institutions that receive federal student aid, undergraduate enrollment dropped to about 18.62 million in 2011 from 18.65 million in 2010.

But Texas is running out of time to reach the goal it set in 2000 — to increase enrollment by 630,000 students by 2015 in order to bring the state’s higher education productivity to parity with other large states.

If the preliminary numbers hold, enrollment will have to increase by an average of 28,000 per year for the next three years in order to meet that benchmark. “I think we’ll do it,” Paredes said, “but obviously, we have a challenge ahead.”

Representative Branch said he hoped the new numbers would help his effort to change Texas’ higher education financing system to take student outcomes, like graduation rates, into account. The state currently gives money to colleges and universities based only on the number of students.

“While this should be one element, because you still want to encourage increasing enrollment,” Branch said, “it’s not the only thing that matters.”

He also said that the commissioner’s reaction to the preliminary figures indicated a need to improve the state’s data collection and forward-looking analysis so that no one is taken by surprise. “If there’s some longer-term trend here than just a plateauing after some pretty dramatic increases, then we need to be aware of that,” he added.

Paredes said that the coordinating board was taking a close look at enrollment.

“There are a number of moving parts, and we’re going to try to understand what’s going on as well as we can,” he said, “but I’m not sure we’ll ever reach a definitive conclusion about what’s happening in Texas.”

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