Hard choices in higher education

The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education has released a study (“Hard Choices Ahead: Performance and Policy in Texas Higher Education”) that looks at the tough choices Texas faces during the budget shortfall:

But the future of economic growth is at stake. The performance of higher education in Texas still lags well behind that of other states. Unless state leaders prioritize their goals for higher education and develop a plan to pay for them, Texas will be forced to close the doors to college opportunity for thousands of young people—many of them Latino—as a number of warning signs attest.

The report points out that the state’s educational system is unable to keep up with the demands of Texas employers:

Despite recent progress, Texas higher education falls below the national average on most measures of performance and below the best-performing states on all of them. Worryingly, Texas ranks 39th among states in the share of adults ages 25 and older who have earned at least an associate degree, at 32%. Yet by 2018, 56% of all jobs in Texas are projected to require some kind of postsecondary education or training. Unless more Texans earn certificates and degrees, and soon, Texas businesses will have no other choice but to look outside the state to find these workers.

The authors of the report effectively point out that Texas has to start making choices.

Texas needs to decide how it will divide its finite financial resources among its competing goals for higher education: increasing college enrollment, raising the number of degrees awarded, pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national rankings, and luring more federal research dollars. Experience in other states, such as California, demonstrates that overexpansion of the university research function can come at the expense of educational opportunity. If Texas spreads its finite financial resources among too many priorities, however worthy, it is unlikely to get a handle on the soaring tuition that is threatening to price more and more Texans out of a college education, thus perpetuating racial and economic disparities.

In effect, the report calls out the state’s political leaders for promising everyone that they can have everything: high prestige research universities and an education for more students–all in the face of a public school system that is not preparing most students to succeed in college. The state’s political leaders promised that Texas would create more Tier I universities and begin attracting more federal grants and other prestigious research. Of course, this flew in the face of the cuts necessitated by the budget shortfall.

While investing in the state’s community colleges would have contributed to a solution, the report notes that the state has failed to adequately fund the two-year schools are often the most affordable alternative.

Texas is not meeting the fiscal needs of its community colleges, despite their huge hole in postsecondary education. Promisingly, Texas is seeking proposals for a study of community college governance, but any reforms would need to be accompanied by changes in the financing model if they are to be effective.

While the report see some promise in some of the discussions going on in Austin, the state’s political leaders are unlikely to change.

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