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When the last legislative session ended with huge wins for Texas public schools in the form of increased funding and teacher raises, higher education leaders looked to 2021, hopeful it would soon be their turn.
Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller, who took the helm in the fall of 2019, started meeting with state lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott to push the idea that the next session should be focused on higher education, including a bill that could overhaul its funding.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Now, instead of the hike in spending they were hoping for, universities are trying to avoid budget cuts while advocating for more resources to serve students, many of whom have been hit hard by the past year.
“In some ways, it pulled the rug out from under us,” Keller told The Texas Tribune in an interview. “But this still needs to be a higher ed session. ... If anything, some of the issues that we've been talking about over the last year seem like they're even more urgent.”
As Texas lawmakers grapple with a struggling economy hurt by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and a winter storm that thrust the state’s electrical infrastructure into the spotlight, higher education advocates are desperately trying to make the case that the state still needs to increase investment in its colleges and universities.
Public university and community college leaders are pitching themselves as the place where Texans can learn new skills, after many people lost jobs in the pandemic that may not come back.
“Our Texas colleges and universities are the tip of the spear for economic recovery,” Keller told lawmakers in a hearing at the capitol last month. “They have primary responsibility to develop talent we’re going to need for short-term recovery and long term economic competitiveness.”
Last summer, Abbott directed nearly all state agencies, including higher education, to cut their budgets by 5% due to the weakened economy.
So far, both the House and the Senate have introduced fairly similar initial budget proposals for two- and four-year post-secondary schools. The state kept general revenue funding — which is the largest source of money that universities receive — flat from the last biennium before the 5% cuts were enacted. Yet, university leaders argue those levels don’t account for the enrollment growth that some four-year schools have seen. The proposed budgets also maintain the 5% cuts to some funding sources that would affect special one-time projects at individual universities.
Overall, the spending proposals would allocate $7.7 billion for four-year universities and $1.8 billion for two-year colleges in the next biennium, which represent a slight decline from the previous budget cycle. That dip is largely due to reductions from one-time funding, such as Hurricane Harvey relief.
Those budget proposals, however, don’t account for the $17 billion for Texas’ state and local budgets that was passed in the latest federal stimulus package.
Many four-year universities are also asking the state to restore the funding from 5% cuts they were forced to enact last year. Meanwhile, higher education advocates want to see the state do more to ensure Texas students and their families have the resources to complete their college education.
“Texas families need less financial burden not more,” said Ashley Williams, a policy analyst for the left-leaning group Every Texan. “With less funding for higher ed, we could be looking at higher tuition and fees if there are no other interventions.”
Texas’ investment in higher education has steadily decreased over the past decade. Higher education funding made up just 6.9% of the state budget in 2020, compared to 11% in 2008. That shift is consistent with a national trend, forcing universities to rely more heavily on tuition and fees.
Many universities have seen other sources of revenue take a hit, such as funding from on-campus housing, meal plans and campus events, as the pandemic shifted the college experience online.
“Reskilling” the workforce
While enrollment trends varied across four-year universities depending on the region, Texas’ community colleges saw a concerning 9% decline in enrollment last fall from the previous year, which accounts for approximately 67,000 students. Those trends have continued into the spring, according to Jacob Fraire, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges.
The drops are unusual as community colleges typically see more students enroll during economic recessions. It also places a financial strain on these schools since community colleges are funded based on enrollment. Leaders at TACC are asking for the state to maintain two-year colleges at the same funding level as the previous biennium, but that budget protection is not currently provided for in either budget proposal.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities are touting their value as the lynchpin between unemployed Texans who need a job and companies who need skilled workers.
Many colleges and universities have already taken advantage of the $46.5 million that Abbott allocated from the Governor’s Educational Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to students who are re-enrolling or close to finishing a credential program through the Texas Reskilling Support Fund Grant program.
The higher education coordinating board is asking for an additional $4 million as it relaunches a program called GradTX that tries to reengage the approximately 4 million students in the state who have some college credit, but dropped out before earning a degree.
Community colleges are also trying to position themselves as the place students, especially those who are low-income, earn those credentials.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who chairs the Senate higher education committee, has filed a bill called the Texas Reskilling & Upskilling through Education Act, which would provide $50 million to community colleges to better prepare students for the skills employers say they need. It would target older adults who have lost jobs in the last year and high schoolers who graduated in 2020 or are set to graduate in 2021, but don’t immediately attend college.
Financial aid in demand
Higher education advocates are especially concerned about potential cuts to state financial aid programs, as more students have qualified for need-based aid due to lost jobs and income, increasing pressure on a system that already doesn’t meet the need of every Texas student who qualifies.
“This is not a time to walk away from our commitment to students,” Keller said. According to Keller, the state provides Toward EXcellence Access and Success grants — financial aid based on need — to less than 60% students who are eligible. At the community college level, less than 18% of eligible students receive a separate need-based grant called the Texas Educational Opportunity Grant.
The state got an infusion of $57 million financial aid programs from the federal CARES Act to offset cuts last summer. Now, the Higher Education Coordinating Board is asking the Legislature to restore the 5% cuts, including 57% million for financial aid, and provide an additional $110 million to maintain the current proportion of students who receive that aid at public and private colleges and universities. As of now, the House and Senate budget proposal for TEXAS grants for four-year universities is $22 million less than allocated for the previous biennium, and TEOG grants for community colleges were reduced by nearly $5 million.
“Even when the official pandemic is over, students will continue to see the financial fallout,” Williams said. “I hope our Texas Leg[islature] uses this time as an opportunity.” She points to the state’s $10 billion rainy day fund to help ensure these programs remain intact.
Creighton said it’s too early to say whether the state needs to allocate that funding or if it can rely on the federal government to provide extra relief for those seeking financial aid.
“Budget writers are very aware of the federal dollars that have flowed that are eligible for that particular use,” he said. “We've got to let the process work.”
While this session isn’t as focused on postsecondary education as higher education officials would like, college and university leaders are still proposing new ways to improve funding mechanisms.
Another bill filed by Creighton proposes a new method to fund the state’s 27 regional public universities, such as West Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Tyler. These universities mainly serve students who live nearby, many of whom are low-income or students of color, crucial demographics for the state to educate if it wants to meet its goal of 60% of 25 to 34 year olds with a degree or credential by 2030.
The bill would provide $1,000, or more if appropriated, to these universities for each degree awarded to an at-risk student who graduates, based on the average number of graduates in the three previous years.
“We're focused on the flagships and focused on the emerging [research] institutions, and we have not focused on the place that perhaps needs where the students perhaps need the most help,” said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp in an interview. “We've fully realized that this may not be the session for big ideas, but we think that conversation ought to start.”
Meanwhile, community colleges, which often serve similar students as the regional four-year universities, are proposing their own funding changes based on performance. The Texas Association of Community Colleges has also suggested the state provide extra money to schools for each disadvantaged student who earns a degree or certificate in a critical field or transfers to a four-year school with 15 credit hours. It would also provide more funding for high school students who earn 15 community college credit hours through dual credit.
Disclosure: Every Texan, Texas Association of Community Colleges and Texas A&M University System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.