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Brian McCall: The TT Interview

The chancellor of the Texas State University System on the system's progress over the last four years, what it is still struggling with and the significance of $10,000 degrees.

Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System, during an interview at Marfa Public Radio in Marfa, TX.

Brian McCall believes the Texas State University System has made significant progress since he was named chancellor in 2010. But it can be easy to get overlooked when larger university systems are experiencing big, attention-grabbing conflicts — as has been the case in recent months.

In his office overlooking the Texas Capitol last week, McCall said his system had a good story to tell. "We’re kind of pleased about some of the things we’re doing that the people across the street say they want done," he said, "like administrative cost as a percentage of overall budget actually going down over time instead of up."

Since 2010, enrollment within the Texas State system, which includes eight institutions, has increased by 10 percent. The six-year graduation rate has increased from less than 45 percent to more than 49 percent. The number of degrees awarded annually is up 14 percent.

"We think we’re hitting on a lot of good cylinders in ways that benefit the students," McCall said.

In addition to discussing the system's progress, McCall spoke with The Texas Tribune about issues the system still struggles with, what having a $10,000 degree — as encouraged by Gov. Rick Perry — means for the system, and what the system is hoping for in the coming legislative session.

Those hopes hinge significantly on lawmakers' handling of the state's Higher Education Assistance Fund, a pot of money that provides money to institutions that are not eligible for the constitutionally created endowment that benefits institutions in the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems.

The following transcript of that conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Texas Tribune: Which of the system's accomplishments over the last four years stands out the most to you?

Brian McCall: We’re proud of the fact that online degree programs are up 110 percent, that online credit hours are up 210 percent, that doctoral degrees granted in four years are up 142 percent. Enrollment is up 10 percent, but we had something like 24,000 applicants for 4,000 spots at just one of our universities. The ratio is the same, though the numbers are different, at another university.

So it’s not like we’re just taking in everybody. We’re doing more than holding the door open for them. When we get them in, we want them to get out. We want to aggressively help them. Those things are important. We’ve raised our admissions standards at some of our institutions. And we’ve added academic advising centers at all of them.

TT: What makes an increase in online degrees exciting? For some people it might sound like a loss of the traditional campus environment.

McCall: The majority of our students are in their 20s. And the majority of our students in their 20s think this is a viable and important option and avenue to learn. If you look at where we were four years ago in presenting that option to those 20-year-olds and where we are now, I think we have come a long way in realizing — "customer service" is a bad way to put it, but we want to provide the ability to learn in whatever method is most absorbed.

To not have had much of a presence four years ago and to have a more significant presence now is not being tone deaf, but being sensitive to what students are looking for.

TT: Many institutions are feeling pressure to increase graduation rates. What have you found to be effective in getting them up?

McCall: We raised entrance standards at Lamar, for example. At Texas State, we have a very high retention rate of Anglo students. But it is not as high as it is for Hispanic students, which is not as high as it is for African-American students, which is unheard of. It’s turning on its head what is thought to be standard practice. But it’s because of aggressive mentoring.

TT: How much credit can the chancellor take for these things?

McCall: None. I should have started this conversation that way. None. It’s a team. I don’t take credit at all. Most of this is the presidents and their cabinets and the board. The system office has an attitude of “we’re here to help.” The system office does play a role, but what happens happens on the campuses.

I mentioned graduation rates are up 10 percent. That’s because presidents and provosts have raised admissions standards and created these advising centers and are aggressively working to mentor.

TT: How significant do you consider the system's development of a $10,000 degree?

McCall: How many students do we have in our $10,000 program? Zero.

The reason we have zero is because it’s on a campus where we’re an upper-division school and students must complete their first two years on that campus at another institution.

Will it be significant? It will be to those who complete the $10,000 degree. Will it be significant for the 19th-largest university system out of the 52 in the United States? It won’t be one of the top things we hang our hat on.

TT: What might get in the way of your progress? Could the lack of tuition revenue bonds for campus construction projects, perhaps?

McCall: That might be one of them. We’re very excited about the fact that the [Higher Education Assistance Fund] recalibration, which comes up every 10 years, is coming up this year. The fact that it comes up at a time when there’s going to be a lot of money in the Legislature is good. We’re hopeful that the HEAF funding allocation will go up this legislative session, in addition to passing the TRB bill that passed both houses last time. 

It’s never smooth sailing. If so, my Dramamine isn’t working.

Legislators are now our minor business partner. They’re our major partner, but they now represent in the 20th percentile of our funding. It varies from school to school. Tuition has to come from somewhere.

It’s not smooth sailing when at Texas State we lead the state with a teacher to student ratio of 29 to 1. We’re not happy about that. It’s not smooth sailing when our teachers make 20 percent less than other teachers at other universities not far away. We’re not happy about that.

Do we believe we’re turning out a good product notwithstanding that? Yeah. Could it be better with a little bit more help? Yeah. Are we good stewards? Yeah, we’re doing more with less than anybody with a good result.

TT: Does it get frustrating when so much attention is focused on the personality conflicts and dramatic changes at other systems?

McCall: Anytime there’s a bad story about UT, it’s bad for all of higher ed in Texas. It’s bad for Lamar University, when there’s a bad story about bad things happening at Texas A&M University.

Those two have, rightly so, been the center of news and will be the center of news in public higher education for years. But there’s a little engine that could out here that’s rocking along that has a pretty good story that is doing what everybody says we ought to be doing to various degrees of success but success nonetheless.

There’s an old saying that he who has a horn and toots it not, the same shall not be tooted. So we’re trying to toot now and then.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune, and Brian McCall is a donor to the Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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