With state help, higher education can advance economic recovery in Texas
By Dr. Steven E. Johnson Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (ICUT)
In the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States operated without a modern playbook. But this new phase of the pandemic comes with a sense of déjà vu: Our nation has been here before. We’ve recovered from the devastating effects of wars and economic recessions, and we know higher education is a critical driver of a successful recovery.
For example, from 1945 to 1956, 7.8 million veterans used the G.I. Bill’s education benefits; 2.2 million attended colleges or universities, and an additional 5.6 million used the benefits for various training programs. Though imperfect, the original G.I. bill returned $7 to the economy for every $1 spent.
Higher education has the opportunity to reprise its leading role in our economic recovery. Success depends, in part, on a commitment from the state to enable a robust and flexible response from Texas’ private and public colleges and universities through continued state and federal aid.
The 42 private, nonprofit members of Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas (ICUT) stand ready to do our part through collaboration with our public counterparts and the Texas Legislature during the current legislative session. Our number-one priority is keeping students on track to graduate. We must ensure they enroll, re-enroll and progress toward their degrees. Many students and their families fear they won’t be able to afford college beyond this academic year, while others worry about assuming debt they may struggle to repay.
As part of our pandemic recovery strategy, we must align our priorities to maintain Texas’ commitment to making post-secondary education affordable and accessible to all, while ensuring students stay in school and graduate on time. Getting this right is essential to the future of our state and the more than 1.2 million students enrolled in higher education here.
Private and public colleges and universities provide an indispensable benefit to our state. Our numerous higher education institutions work hard to make educational dreams a reality for students and their families, which includes providing necessary financial aid to thousands of students each year, many of whom are from underrepresented populations — such as first-generation college students and students from economically disadvantaged families.
Like the state-funded financial aid available to students at our public counterparts, funding support from the Texas Legislature is a critical component of ensuring the private, nonprofit higher education sector in Texas achieves its full potential as an economic driver and continues fulfilling Texas students’ educational dreams. Since 1971, the Tuition Equalization Grant (TEG) program has provided over one million grants to Texas residents who demonstrate financial need and choose to attend one of the state’s more than 40 independent, nonprofit institutions — schools like Schreiner University in Kerrville, McMurry University in Abilene, Huston-Tillotson University in Austin and the University of St. Thomas in Houston.
The TEG program is a win-win for Texas. In addition to its value to students, it’s of great benefit to taxpayers. According to recent ICUT figures, the average TEG award of $3,407 saved the state about 51% of the estimated taxpayer appropriation of $6,728 for each full-time Texas public university student. When you multiply those cost savings with the thousands of TEG-supported students, Texas’ cost-benefit in the 2019 fiscal year was $169.1 million.
Importantly, this kind of need-based financial aid increases access for historically underrepresented students. Data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reveals nearly 65% of TEG recipients in the 2019 fiscal year were students of color. Additionally, recent research highlights the success of need-based grant aid in significantly increasing enrollment, retention and completion for students receiving these grants.
"The 101:" The Higher Ed Poll of Texas reveals that for 68% of respondents, cost remains the top barrier to postsecondary education. Further, a substantial majority of Texans — 80% — feel it is vital for Texas to continue providing state-funded financial aid to students who need it.
With Texas looking to achieve the ambitious goals of our state’s higher education strategic plan — namely, that 60% of Texans aged 25-34 will have a post-secondary credential by 2030 — providing need-based financial aid to Texas students in all sectors of higher education must remain a priority. Our state’s independent, nonprofit institutions remain committed to this goal, and recognize it will only be achieved if the public and private sectors of Texas higher education work together.
Texas’ future relies more heavily than ever on the ability of our colleges and universities to produce the highly skilled workforce necessary to compete in tomorrow’s global economy. To truly succeed, we must draw on the talent of Texans from all incomes and backgrounds. And we must continue the legacy of modern American higher education that was born of this idea: Given the opportunity, any person can pursue higher learning for both personal and societal benefit.
Dr. Steven E. Johnson is the president of Independent Colleges and Universities of Texas, Inc. (ICUT), a nonprofit association representing 42 Texas independent colleges and universities.