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As Texas’ population continues to grow and diversify, a pair of higher education leaders said Thursday that Texas universities and colleges must make sure everyone has equal access to their institutions if they want more students to graduate.
“We’re leaning into this work of making sure that we are giving everyone that opportunity,” Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller said. “If we’re not advancing that so everyone has an opportunity to participate and contribute to benefit from our state, we cannot meet our goals.”
Keller spoke Thursday at a Texas Tribune event on higher education and the Texas legislative session. He was joined on the panel by Brenda Hellyer, the chancellor of San Jacinto College.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board wants 60% of Texans ages 25 to 64 to have postsecondary credentials by 2030, and as people of color increasingly make up more of the state’s population, the board is increasing its commitment to equitable access to higher education.
But as Keller and the coordinating board chase this goal, some lawmakers want to defund diversity offices at higher education institutions. Keller acknowledges that can be complex, given that universities and colleges can house different programs under these offices.
“You need to look a little more closely at how the institutions organized themselves [and] what the functions of those offices are,” he said. “Some of them, for example, are working on Title IX compliance, that is going to have to live somewhere.”
This session, state Rep. Carl Tepper, R-Lubbock, filed House Bill 1006, which would ban the funding, promotion, sponsorship or support of diversity, equity and inclusion offices.
“While I strongly believe that public universities should allow a wide variety of debates and opinions, public universities should not use taxpayer dollars to inculcate students with certain politically divisive values,” Tepper said in an emailed statement related to the bill, The Daily Texan reported.
During the Tribune discussion Thursday, Hellyer said San Jacinto College’s DEI initiatives are doing work aimed at helping male students struggling with math.
“With our office, it is really looking more broadly at things,” Hellyer said. “I could call this work student success, I could call it about creating belonging. It’s about access.”
This month, Gardner Pate, Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff, sent a letter to state agencies and public university leaders earlier this month saying that they must stop using DEI policies in their hiring and that hiring cannot be based on factors “other than merit.”
These policies support groups of people who have been historically underrepresented or discriminated against, but Pate’s letter claims they violate federal and state employment laws.
Legal experts have said that the governor’s office has mischaracterized the practices employers use when considering diversity in their hiring. But that hasn’t stopped universities from acting on the governor’s order. The University of Texas System announced Wednesday that it has paused all new policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
Hellyer said that with an enrollment population of 64% Hispanic students and about 10% Black students, it’s the obligation of her college to “serve our community.”
“We’re watching what’s happening, but I just believe that we are doing the right thing for our community,” Hellyer said.
While they’re keeping tabs on how DEI bills progress through the legislative session, both Hellyer and Keller are also optimistic that lawmakers will use part of the historic $32.7 billion budget surplus to help colleges and universities bring down costs amid rising inflation.
“I’m more optimistic in this session than I’ve ever been,” Keller said. “This is really sort of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in higher education.”
Already, several university systems have pitched freezing undergraduate tuition for two years in exchange for nearly $1 billion in additional funding.
But Keller said while it’s true that freezing tuition would improve costs for students, the real issues are rising costs in housing, transportation and groceries.
“That’s why a lot of folks are feeling squeezed,” he said. “We get back to like, what kinds of guarantees we’re making to students on the financial aid side. And the way we package financial aid in higher ed isn’t just based on tuition.”
At the community college level, advocates are pushing for legislation that would overhaul how the state funds its two-year colleges, tying funds to how successful schools are at getting students to graduation or four-year universities.
Currently, Texas funds its two-year community colleges with three pots of money: local property taxes, student tuition and a complicated state system that has not kept pace with other resources and now accounts for less than 25% of community colleges’ funding.
“We’re going into this 100% committed and that this is going to be better for the students, better for the state and better for our communities,” Hellyer said.
Keller warned that the right investments must be made if Texas wants to maintain and advance its competitive position, not only in the country but in the world.
“We want to make sure that Texas remains a premier destination and continues to lead the way. That is increasingly going to depend on the strength of Texas higher education,” he said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas System has been a financial supporter 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.