What Do Higher Ed Policymakers Care About Most?

Some of the biggest trends at Texas public universities boil down to one thing.

College completion—and a number of issues that affect it—are likely to define the future of higher education in Texas.

At Thursday’s Texas Tribune “On the Road” event at Texas A&M University, speakers from business, academia, and government discussed topics ranging from tuition costs to online classes. Much of the discussion centered on current and future demographics of the state, and how universities can react to, embrace, and ultimately educate a growing and increasingly diverse society.

Speakers hailing from Abilene to Austin emphasized one thing: getting students into college is important, but getting them to finish college is vital.

The issues that defined the day—like tuition costs, legislative funding based on student success, and online courses—all relate to retaining and graduating students.

“We are in crisis,” Texas House higher education chair Dan Branch (R-Dallas) said when asked about the expected gap [PDF] between college graduates and jobs that require college degrees. Branch made a forceful case for better college recruiting and completion efforts. He has filed a bill to link some base university funding to outcomes like graduation, and said he is hopeful that institutions will be judged by aspects beyond just enrollment.

“At one time, student success was getting people to think about education beyond high school,” Branch said. “If you were starting today, you wouldn’t just incentivize enrollment.”

Price also factors into students’ ability to complete their degrees. On the concept of a four-year fixed tuition rate option, Senate higher education chair Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told the Tribune‘s Evan Smith that there is value in predictability. Rep. Branch has also introduced a bill that would give public universities the option to set fixed rates.

Sen. Seliger stressed hybrid models of college education that may help keep prices down, including dual credit, community college, and online learning, with an ultimate path to a university degree.

“It would behoove the state to invest in things like early college high schools,” Seliger said.

When asked about calls to judge professors based on how much revenue they generate for a university—specifically Texas A&M’s highly controversial “Red and Black” report—Sen. Seliger was frank.

“Trying to apply business practices to inefficient organizations like universities is not going to work,” he said.

Several speakers, including Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, pinpointed accessibility, affordability, and accountability as the guiding principles for Texas universities. Sen. Seliger called keeping taxes low his overarching responsibility, but noted the inherent value of a college degree and the critical thinking it carries with it.

Asked about the possibility of the legislature regulating tuition, Seliger stopped short of endorsing the idea, but stressed the need to control prices that have increased an average of 90 percent since 2003.

“If there’s an alternative to regulation or legislation,” he said, “legislative bodies should always look for it.” Sen. Seliger suggested the possibility of tying tuition growth to the rate of inflation.

Strategies to recruit, retain, and graduate students are only possible with one thing: money. Dan Jones, president and CEO of Texas A&M University-Commerce, asserted that there is a direct correlation between diminishing legislative funding and rising tuition prices. A similar correlation exists, he said, between those higher costs and decreasing access to higher education.

“Nothing is without a price tag, that’s for sure,” quipped Texas State University president Denise Trauth.

When asked by Texas A&M student Stephen Pennington what issue would define the upcoming Legislature, Sen. Selgier said it all comes back to funding.

“My priority is not to micromanage higher education financing, and certainly not higher education admissions,” Seliger said.

Rep. Branch affirmed the value of a college education.

“We need to convince people of the value of the investment,” Branch said. “If we can make a case for a higher investment, we will.”

Creative Commons photo of the Texas A&M campus courtesy Geek2Nurse on Flickr.


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