Texas Tea Leaves: Reading Governor-Elect Abbott on Higher Ed

On Jan. 20, Greg Abbott will take office as the Governor of Texas. Here’s what he’s said so far—and what others have said—about his agenda for higher education.

Texas Tea Leaves: Reading Governor-Elect Abbott on Higher Ed

When he enters the Governor’s Mansion next month, Greg Abbott, BBA ’81, Life Member, will be the first Longhorn in Texas’ top spot since Dolph Briscoe, BBA ’43, Distinguished Alumnus, left in 1979. At an event at UT-Dallas in September, then-candidate Abbott laid out his plan for the state’s colleges and universities.

From the Texas Tribune:

Implementing outcomes-based funding for universities, establishing block scheduling at community colleges and requiring all public institutions to give college credit for scores of 3 or higher on AP exams were among the proposals included in the higher education plan laid out by Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott on Tuesday.

Besides pushing for outcomes-based funding which, despite broad support has languished in recent legislatures, Abbott stressed “flexibility and affordability,” including giving students credit for open, online courses called “MOOCs”.

MOOCs are online courses with unlimited enrollment that anyone — regardless of whether they are enrolled at a university — can sign up for and take for free. Right now, the courses rarely earn students college credit.

After his election, The Daily Texan questioned state and higher education leaders on Abbott’s announced goals.

UT System vice chancellor and chief governmental relations officer Barry McBee:

“Affordability is going to be on the mind of any Texas governor,” McBee said. “My sense is that he sees affordability as ensuring students can move through college and attain a high quality education in as quick a time as possible.”

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), BS ’67, MA ’70, PhD ’78, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna:

“I believe that Governor-elect Abbott will prioritize research, that he understands the value and is committed to excellence,” Zaffirini said. “He shares the enthusiasm about issues like affordability and accessibility and cost efficiency and productivity. We all support all of those concepts but not at the expense of excellence, and I hope Abbott shares that perspective.”

Earlier this month at Capitol press conference, Abbott introduced his team and expressed his thoughts on the state’s top-tier universities. From the Tribune:

“One of the areas that disturbs me is the fact that five of the top 10 public universities in the country are from California, with none being from Texas,” Abbott said.

The Dallas Morning News elaborated on Abbott’s focus on increasing the number of tier-one research universities, notably through a $40 million bump to the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund:

During his recent romp in the race for governor, Abbott proposed a 25 percent increase in how much money the state puts into a special fund that helps eight of the state’s 38 state universities attract top faculty and improve instruction and research.

It’s unclear, though, whether that would be more than just a first, small step toward the aspirations Abbott spoke of at a Capitol news conference.

In response to Abbott’s conference, San Antonio Express-News columnist Josh Brodesky weighed in, claiming that a focus on pumping up research must be balanced with the state’s goal of improving college completion rates and preparing students for the workforce:

There are many undeniable benefits that come from Tier One universities. Status and prestige. The research generated from these schools can redefine state and local economies. It can lead to job creation and keep the best and brightest home. Tier One status for UTSA would be a game-changer for this community.

But there are also often-ignored tradeoffs, said Patrick Callan, president of the California-based Higher Education Policy Institute.

“Texas’ idea of imitating the California experience” on research institutions, he said, “is likely to inhibit the state’s ability to do some of the other things that we need from higher education.”

In other words, too much focus on research might just diminish the state’s ability to develop the workforce it needs. A better approach might be to have two excellent research universities, rather than eight middling ones, he said. Other universities would focus on workforce development with select research specialties.

Back at the Dallas Morning News, columnist Jim Mitchell also commented on Abbott’s plan, saying the proposed moves are really just the beginning:

To me, the problem is that this goal requires a massive state investment sustained over generations. We can woo research talent from elsewhere with promises of shiny labs, but we also have to grow talent here. That is the story of Silicon Valley, where California schools and research institutions created and sustained decades of close ties to high-tech industries, fueling economic success. This will be a difficult task here, given the state of high school graduation rates and an overall reluctance of Texas lawmakers — and in some cases, local taxpayers — to invest in the next generation.

Photo by Gage Skidmore.


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