Lone Star College System's $500 Million Question (UPDATED)

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Tomorrow's another big day for the Lone Star College System as it seeks to persuade voters that it needs a bunch more money -- $497.7 million -- to expand its facilities and who cares about those old Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board projections anyway?

Well some people do and they say this entire bond issue is a waste of time and money and that instead the college system ought to think about better use of the space it already has.

Currently holding at 78,000 students -- 90K if you factor in the non-credit and community education students according to Laura Morris Lone Star's Associate Vice Chancellor, Marketing & Communication -- Lone Star needs to expand to be able to service students face-to-face, Morris argues.

And any suggestion that employing more online courses to cut down on classroom needs is absolutely not the right way to go, Morris says. (Bucking a trend seen elsewhere in the country and in the Houston area.)

"We have a very robust Lone Star online, and we do a number of hybrid courses" she says. "But we know and research says that students are much more successful and complete their courses when they have face to face as well as online," she said. To ensure student success, she said, they need to bring students to campus.

The Coordinating Board projects an increase to 82,000 students by 2018. Lone Star begs to differ, saying it'll be 100,000 to 110,000 and that the lower number is "unreasonable." Morris says Lone Star's projected growth has been carefully evaluated by teams of professionals. "The Higher Education Coordinating Board does forecasts but it's not as precise as the research we do."

"What you have is some people don't understand how the numbers are calculated and use them incorrectly," said Morris, saying she wasn't referring to the Coordinating Board in making that statement.

"I'm talking about others who are taking the Coordinating Board forecast out of context."

The "others" she was alluding to would, we guess, include Elizabeth Jensen, candidate for a Lone Star trustee position, and Ronald Trowbridge, Lone Star English professor, both Ph.Ds, who oppose a yes vote in the May 11 election, saying they can't figure out the numbers. "The proposed bond will pay for the construction of additional buildings and facilities that may not actually be used," they wrote in a joint statement. "Our position is that the need has not been established and that the additional public debt would be an unnecessary burden."

Dr. Richard Carpenter, Lone Star System chancellor, has made the case that numbers are ever expanding at the college system. Trowbridge and Jensen argue that the opposite is the case and that in fact the numbers there have been bolstered by unemployed people going to college who will opt out again once the economy picks up.

Asked whether there was a drop in enrollment at the Tomball campus, Morris responded that "We have never had a decline in enrollment in the system in the 40-year history of the system."

Asked again specifically about the Tomball campus and whether students had moved from there to the University Park campus, Morris said: "I do not have specific campus trend data." She offered to research that, adding that students often take courses at multiple campuses.

A check of Lone Star's own website showed that there has, in fact, been a drop in enrollment at the Tomball campus.

2013 Spring: Tomball 8,746 2012 Spring: Tomball 8,969 2011 Spring: Tomball 11,097 2010 Spring: Tomball 10,453 2009 Spring: Tomball 8,398

Update: Morris says Fall figures for the Tomball campus show no large drop, that fall is when such assessments are usually made -- including by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board -- and that the Spring numbers should not be used. She says the Tomball numbers were essentially flat. She also says that the Tomball numbers for Spring 2011 include UP students and it was only the following year that UP and Tomball became separately indentified. So, she says, the numbers are essentially flat.

Morris denies that any of their campuses are far from full or have empty classrooms. "We're at capacity at a number of our campuses."

She also insists that the bond issue is community-driven.

A former employee of Lone Star said Chancellor Carpenter would frequently refer to the 100,000 goal and when anyone asked where he was getting his numbers from, he would say that he intended to go ahead and say it.

The critic also says that the Texas Higher Ed Coordinating Board counts students once regardless if they take classes at all six campuses and says just because a student sets foot on several campuses, he or she should not be counted each time. Lone Star is one system and a student should be counted once, the former employee says.

"The Tomball enrollment dropped because nine miles down the road they have a 1 million square foot campus at UP that's diverting the Tomball students - that's the point: there's plenty of room and no additional students. Why does Tomball need more buildings? The students are going down the road to the UP. Tomball did not continue to increase enrollment. They don't need half a billion dollars to build more buildings when they haven't grown to justify that expense," the former employee says.

Morris says the money had all been used from the 2008 bond election. One thing that didn't get built though was a new satellite campus for Lone Star-Cy Fair. The project at the corner of Clay and Fry roads was held up because of a disagreement with Harris County over what needed to be done at that intersection, the former employee says, and records show ground on it wasn't broken until September 2012.

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