Previewing higher education funding

A lot of university faculty are feeling very fortunate to have job security during the economic downturn. At the same time, the state’s leaders have asked agencies to cut their budgets by 5% is sending chills through higher education because, at the  Austin-American Statesman reported in December, universities are finding themselves trapped between growing demands and shrinking revenues.

Graph of increasing tuition in Texas

The Texas Tribune tracks the growth in tuition since 2003

The Texas Tribune does a good job of looking at the problem in The Tuition Time Bomb. Their story notes that tuition has climbed 63% since tuition was deregulated in 2003. Tuition has already risen much faster than family incomes and the state’s universities were warned by the Legislature not to increase tuition by more than 3.95% unless unavoidable. Almost all will meet that goal.

The good news is that college tuition in Texas is still around the national average. The bad news is that average family income in Texas is below the national average and students are running up more and more debt.

Texas had a tradition of opening up it universities to as many Texans as possible and a college diploma offered the promise of economic mobility for generations of Texans. For decades tuition was very inexpensive and small town Texans could afford the education that would move them from the farm to the new economy of Texas. Today, the path for many Texans is more steep and the demands of the new economy are daunting for those without a college degree. In some parts of the country, state schools are looking increasingly like their expensive private counterparts. Texas could be headed in the same direction.

Ironically, a few years ago the state’s political leaders have promoted the idea of putting 500,000 more students in college in Texas.

As we expand the number of students going into higher education we increase the number of marginal students. The students who aren’t well prepared can be the most expensive to education. Often, they end up the schools with the fewest resources. It’s a prescription for disappointment and frustration. Students who need remedial courses and additional help are unattractive to schools–especially as the state shifts its funding toward “retention” (schools will not be funded for the students they take–they’ll be funded for the students they keep). The message to higher ed is clear: either turn away risky students or lower your grading standards and pass everyone.

Many students enter college poorly prepared. The need for remedial coursework reveals only some of the gaps between what students need and what they’re given. While some political leaders point at test results and claim progress, those of us in higher education have seen that test-driven students are lacking creativity and flexibility. “No Child Left Behind” has given us a generation of students better suited to standardized tests than the demands of college–or the workforce.

The situation will not get better any time soon. The New York Times reported from a recent meeting of the nation’s governors that states expect more tough financial times ahead. It looks like the budget Texas will be writing next year is going to be drafted in the face of some tough revenue estimates. In the meantime, Texas universities can expect less money while serving more students


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