Texas Legislature Needs to Do Better By Its College Students, Or Let's Just Keep Exporting Them to Other States

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As we close in on rodeo time at the 2009 version of the Texas Legislature, education funding, as usual, will be one of the main topics. And in a dour economy, it's no secret that the degree-of-difficulty factor has just been ramped up a couple extra notches.

We caught up with Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who mostly deals with K-12 issues but works with higher-education funding and says there's a trickle down effect on K-12. "If families and kids don't believe there's college in their future, or at least some form of post-secondary education it's hard to motivate them to finish high school."

According to Hochberg, the state has let its college students down before.

"We made a commitment to students that we were going to make Texas grants available to anybody who was eligible to go to college. We then welshed on that commitment as a result of failure of  the leadership to even entertain the idea of fully funding that program."

Now, he says, they've received recommendations from the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board to even further limit who gets those loans and grants. "We've even talked about making community college students ineligible and that is arguably one of the places where it does the most good in terms of increasing access."

All this is something, Hochberg says, "we can fix for not a lot of money. The cost of fully funding Texas grants is relatively small versus the whole budget."

The state also has a shortage of what he calls "upper-end college capacity," Hochberg says.

"We still have roughly the same number of slots for high level students, i.e. UT and Texas A&M as we had when I was in college, which was before they invented chalk. And that doesn't make sense at all."

"According to at least one set of numbers I've seen, we are a net exporter of college students, to the tune of about 5,000 a year. It's no surprise that we are both that and we are supposedly the state that lost the highest number of high-tech jobs in the country over a five-year period."

Hochberg thinks the Legislature should help elevate the quality of some of the state's second-tier schools and he hopes that the University of Houston would reap the benefits of that. "I think UH is logically positioned to be there," he says "Both the Houston and Dallas areas suffer from not having such an institution nearby. And I don't count A&M as nearby."

Something has to change about rising tuition costs, he says. "We have essentially thrown college-costs recovery onto tuition in a greater level than we used to. If tuition is 25 percent of the cost of running a university and it's got to make up all of the inflation for the entire university budget, then it's going to go up by a whole heck of a lot more than the 10 percent inflation rate to cover it."

At the same time, Hochberg says, the Legislature needs to talk about cost control at the university level and not just about tuition. "I'm talking about the costs of operating colleges and universities."

He concedes there are no immediate short term fixes but says it's something legislators have to start considering.

"And I don't believe the answer is to route everybody to community college. I think community college is perfectly appropriate for a lot of folks. But I think for people who say that, I think if you ask them if they want their kids to go to community college for the first two years or if they would advocate for instance, shutting down the first two years of UT and A&M and turning those into additional upper level slots, I think those folks who advocate sending everybody to community college will quickly say, 'Oh no, we didn't mean that.' "

"The universities have been extremely resistant to the concept that we have any business looking at their overall budget. They've argued strongly that we don't fund their whole budget so as long as they're doing okay with the piece we give them, what business is the rest of it.  I don't happen to agree with that position."

Education always strikes at the core of people's belief system. If it's not what's being taught, it's how and, often, how it's going to be paid for. Add further financial pressures to the mix and you have the makings of some really good floor fights in the upcoming session.

-- Margaret Downing

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