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Higher Ed Commissioner: Increase Focus on Students

The state's next long-term higher education plan will direct more attention on the needs of students and less on faculty, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said Tuesday.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes at the Texas Capitol as Governor Rick Perry signs several education-related bills in ceremonies on June 10, 2013.

The state's next long-term higher education plan, which is still being formulated, will be more ambitious and will refocus attention on the needs of students, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said Tuesday.

Speaking on a conference call with reporters, Paredes said the current plan, Closing the Gaps by 2015, which has been in place for 15 years, is likely to meet its enrollment goals and has already surpassed its goals for increasing the number of degrees and certificates awarded annually. He said the next long-range vision, after being vetted by lawmakers and the public, is expected to be adopted in July.

Paredes said the plan "will return Texas very substantially to focusing on student success, particularly undergraduate student success."

As an example of the problem he has with the status quo, Paredes said lower-level courses at the state's universities were often a "mish-mash" of courses that "largely reflects the teaching interest of faculty rather than the specific needs of students."

"We’ve gone off the tracks a little bit in the fact that higher education has gone from being student-focused to faculty-focused," he said.

Paredes also noted that excluding the state's two top performing public universities, the state's average six-year graduation rate is at around 50 percent. He called this unacceptable.

"We need to move from being satisfied with incremental growth to dramatic improvement in some of our metrics," he said.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board's legislative priorities heading into the next session reflect the commissioner's sentiment.

The coordinating board will again push for "outcomes-based funding" for public universities, which would tie a portion of schools' state funding to performance metrics like the number of degrees awarded, with the hope of incentivizing improvements.

Under the formula being put forward this time — unlike failed proposals in previous sessions — each institution would be able to select which student success measures should be emphasized when they are being evaluated. Examples of such measures include the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to at-risk students, the total number of degrees awarded and how many students had hit certain credit-hour benchmarks.

The board also intends to encourage lawmakers to allow more community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees to help increase the number of affordable options students have for earning such credentials.

In the coming session, Paredes said, the board is asking for a nearly 14 percent increase in funding for community colleges, a nearly 12 percent increase in funding for universities and a nearly $130 million increase in funding for TEXAS Grants, the state's need-based financial aid program.

With Gov.-elect Greg Abbott taking office in January, Paredes' future as commissioner is unclear, as Abbott could install a new commissioner. 

"Obviously if the governor wants to make a change, I would accept that. But we haven’t had that conversation," Paredes said.

At a news conference on Monday, Abbott said hoped to elevate the national standing of the state's public universities. Asked about that priority, Paredes said he supported it, though he noted that people should not solely rely on the U.S. News & World Report rankings to determine a school's success.

State Comptroller Susan Combs also put out a report on Tuesday with recommendations for how the Legislature could combat rising college costs and student debt loads.

The report recommends that lawmakers require institutions to post easy-to-use net price calculators — which calculate how much a student is likely to pay out of pocket after receiving financial aid — on their website. It also recommends publishing information or links to information about the salaries earned by graduates based on degree and area of study.

"If college becomes possible only for the few, our young people and our nation will suffer for it," Combs said in a statement. "Our kids will find themselves squeezed out of their best chance for financial success, and America will miss out on the productivity and innovation of many of our best minds."

Additionally, the report calls for pushing to changes to disclosure rules for federal loans, determining how to measure the returns of investments in student services, and tweaking funding formulas to account for the rise of nontraditional course delivery methods. 

Disclosure: Raymund Paredes is a donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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