HOUSTON CHRONICLE NEWS
Copyright 2015: Houston Chronicle
The state’s six chancellors of higher education seemed relatively sanguine about the new legislative session when they visited the Chronicle editorial board Monday. Money, of course, is always a concern, but in 2015 they’re not staring at debilitating higher-education budget cuts as they were in 2011. Nor are they dealing with a meddlesome governor who believed that when it came to education reform, he and an education guru peddling “seven solutions” knew what was best for Texas. This time, Gov. Rick Perry has moved on to potentially bigger things, and the economy is in relatively good shape, as state Comptroller Glenn Hager outlined Monday.
The chancellors still must make their case in Austin, as University of Houston Chancellor Renu Khator pointed out, but she and her counterparts are expecting lawmakers to be receptive. Robert Duncan, the former state senator from Lubbock and newly installed Texas Tech chancellor, noted that most lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are aware of both the educational and economic significance of higher education institutions in their districts.
Being aware is one thing; exhibiting a willingness to make the necessary investment in higher education is another. The record over the last decade, to use a venerable report-card term, “needs improvement.”
Students have experienced a 99 percent increase in tuition and fees at Texas universities during the past 10 years. Tuition at the University of Houston, for example, increased 311 percent, to $2,836 a semester in 2013. According to the Project on Student Debt, about six in 10 Texas students borrow for college. They end up owing an average of $25,244 when they leave school. That personal debt figure is an increase of 60 percent over the past eight years, an increase due in large part to higher tuition costs and lack of support from Texas lawmakers.
The state of Texas appropriated $490 less per student in 2013 than it did in 2003, the year lawmakers deregulated tuition. In other words, those lawmakers who profess to believe in higher education have slashed the state’s percentage of support, saddling students with higher costs and more debt. At the same time, lawmakers are insisting that colleges and universities take more responsibility for ensuring the success of the students they enroll, many of whom require additional time and attention because of the state’s socioeconomic inequities and its inadequately funded public schools.
As Duncan told the editorial board, “There’s been an erosion because of the cuts that we’ve had. At the same time, we’ve had this huge growth in higher education, and we haven’t been able to keep up with the growth and the rate.”
At least three lawmakers, including state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, have filed tuition re-regulation bills. Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, said last week the issue would be addressed.
The prospect of re-regulation concerns the chancellors, in large part because they realize that lawmakers are not likely to assume more of the burden of higher-education costs. Texas now funds less than 20 percent of UT-Austin’s budget, for example, and no one expects that figure to change appreciably in the coming years. What lawmakers can do, of course, is to strengthen state financial aid programs, including the Texas Grant program, to make access a priority.
The state’s unwillingness to provide adequate funding not only puts college out of reach for many students and their families, but it also hobbles efforts to keep Texas competitive nationally. Texas ranks ninth among the largest states in percentage of population enrolled in higher education. And that number affects our economy.
“You’re fixing to do irreparable harm if you don’t pay attention to it,” Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp told the editorial board. “You can’t ignore it anymore.”