UT-San Antonio's growing enrollment, poor graduation rates illustrate a statewide challenge
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz and Laura Heinauer
Sunday, February 6, 2005
SAN ANTONIO -- Laboratory space is in such short supply at the University of Texas at San Antonio that chemistry students often end up taking freshman labs two to three years after the lecture portion of the course.
Students at a recent lecture on molecular theory had to do without photocopied handouts on the topic because the department couldn't afford to produce them.
And come exam day, there will inevitably be students squatting in aisles since many desktops are broken.
This suburban campus on the edge of the Hill Country is a case study in what's wrong with public higher education in Texas: It's falling behind, underfunded and, in some cases, broken.
The state's college enrollment and graduation rates are well below the national average. For every 100 ninth-graders in Texas, 64 graduate from high school on time, and only 13 go on to earn an associate's degree within three years after high school or a bachelor's degree within six years. Nationwide, the number of ninth-graders eventually earning degrees is 18, about a third larger.
The quality of the state's higher education institutions is also a concern.
Just two public universities -- UT-Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station -- rank among the nation's leading research schools, which serve not only as centers of educational excellence but as engines of regional economic growth. California, by contrast, has six public universities in the top tier. UT-San Antonio, Texas Tech University, the University of Houston and other schools that aspire to that level aren't likely to get there for at least a couple of decades, if ever.
Community colleges, where more and more students enter higher education, are feeling the squeeze of declining state appropriations more acutely than their better-endowed four-year siblings. The five-campus North Harris Montgomery Community College District in East Texas, for example, can't afford to hire enough teachers to meet the demand for freshman English.
The shortcomings of higher education in Texas have not escaped official notice. But for the most part, the state has failed to act on those shortcomings.
In October 2000, the state's higher education agency adopted a plan to step up enrollment, graduation rates, quality and research. The plan, known as Closing the Gaps by 2015, is intended to bring Texas up to par with other states and to narrow the college-going differences between various groups within Texas. African Americans attend college at a slightly lower rate than whites, and Hispanic enrollment lags far behind. The goals were broadly endorsed by the state's political leadership.
But the plan was silent on the question of money, and the state's political leaders have largely failed to address that. It would cost billions of dollars to pay for the campus construction projects, additional faculty, student financial aid and other measures essential to achieving the plan's goals. Yet there has been no serious discussion about a bond issue or other methods of raising the money. California officials, in contrast, won voter approval last year for $2.3 billion in bonds for college construction projects.
Now, more than four years into the 15-year plan, it is clear that Texas is falling short of many of the goals.
Although the number of college students is increasing, it's not keeping pace with population growth. A particular concern is that Hispanics, whose population is growing the fastest, attend college at the lowest rate of any group. UT-San Antonio is an exception: Nearly half of its students are Hispanic.
If current trends continue, Texas will have 1.3 million people attending public or private colleges by 2015, and Hispanics will be sorely underrepresented. The state would need to have 1.6 million college students to achieve an enrollment rate similar to that of other large states, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Higher education not only exposes people to history, science, fine arts and the great books of civilization, but also puts bread on the table. A person with a college degree generally makes about twice as much money a year as someone with a high school education.
"Over a lifetime, a college graduate earns about $1 million more on average than someone with only a high school diploma," said Raymund Paredes, the state's commissioner of higher education.
State Demographer Steve Murdock sees a bleak future if current higher education trends go unchecked: declining household income, more poverty, more crime, higher incarceration rates, more people on food stamps. His projections show average household income declining by roughly $5,000 between 2000 and 2030, producing a ripple effect that would cost the state's economy many billions of dollars.
Yet the state's business community, with a few exceptions, has not sounded the alarm.
"If we have to look at new revenues, so be it. The fact is, higher education in general doesn't have a lot of advocates out there pounding on the table," said James Huffines, chairman of PlainsCapital Bank's Central and South Texas regions and chairman of the UT System Board of Regents. "We have to do a better job. But getting people to get out and advocate and stand up and take some hits and confront maybe some of their friends -- it's hard to do sometimes."
How the state addresses education will decide its future, said William Cunningham, a former UT System chancellor. "The political structure of Texas is going to have to decide if they want to support a first-class system of education," Cunningham said. "And if they do, they're going to have to be willing to provide the funds to make it happen."
But higher education institutions will be lucky to emerge from the current session of the Texas Legislature without seeing general appropriations reduced, as they were two years ago. Lawmakers are far more focused on public school finance, property taxes and child protection services.
Many college officials say even a hold-the-line budget would be tough to swallow. The officials are reluctant to raise tuition much in light of some fairly sizable increases imposed since 2003, when the Legislature cut general appropriations for higher education by $257 million and gave university governing boards tuition-setting authority that previously was reserved for lawmakers. Annual tuition and fees increased 37 percent from the 2003-04 school year to the current school year at UT-Austin, 23 percent at UT-San Antonio and 18 percent at Texas A&M University at College Station, according to the higher education coordinating board.
"Our problem is, every time the budget is kept flat, we're down 7 percent," said UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof, explaining the combined effect of enrollment growth and inflation. "If you're UT-San Antonio, now the second-largest institution in our system -- 26,000 students, growing 5 to 10 percent a year -- you're out of everything. You're out of professors; you're out of space. You name the category; they don't have enough of them to service the population that they have."
Springing from a leather chair in his fourth-floor office, UT-San Antonio President Ricardo Romo was happy to pull out the numbers.
The student body has grown by about half in the past 10 years. The school has one of the highest student-to-faculty ratios in the state, 24 to 1. A 1,000-bed housing complex filled up immediately when it opened in the fall, and 700 additional beds are planned. The university's master plan calls for the construction of one building a year to keep up with enrollment.
"Our classrooms are in use 50 hours a week," Romo said. "We're busting at the seams." UT-San Antonio has other problems as well. Many of its students are ill-prepared for college-level work, and only about 35 percent of freshmen who started in 1997 earned a degree here or at another state school within six years. Financial aid for students falls $50 million short of the need, causing some to spend too much time working and too little time studying, and others drop out altogether.
Despite these daunting challenges, Romo hopes to propel the school into the top tier of American research universities by the end of the decade by hiring hundreds of faculty members and dramatically expanding research. His goal, while laudable, is unrealistic in light of heavy teaching loads, modest fund raising and severe space shortages, according to a consultant's report commissioned by the UT System. What's more, the report says, such a torrid hiring pace would make it difficult to maintain quality.
Romo hired 75 faculty members last year but acknowledges that such a rate might not be sustainable. And he can't always hire the professors he needs. Not one of last year's crop, for example, was a biologist, even though many biology classes are packed with upwards of 200 students. There is simply no space for the research laboratories and offices that new biology professors would need. As Romo put it: "They won't come if you don't have labs."
The school is addressing that problem with an $84 million bioscience and engineering building that is expected to be completed late this summer or in early fall. But because administrators consider the need for faculty to be most urgent, the building won't do much to ease the shortage of chemistry and biology labs for students. Currently, some of the labs used for teaching run until 11:30 at night, and others are scheduled for Saturdays.
Bernard Powell, a chemistry professor, says these problems need to be addressed before worrying about top-tier status. "I'd like to be able to set up a class without worrying about copy costs," he said.
UT-San Antonio is also struggling to shed its commuter-school image. It's made some progress, thanks to the enrollment growth and the additional on-campus housing.
The growth here is in part a result of efforts to reduce the size of the student body at the sister campus in Austin. But a bigger factor is location. Students from South Texas like this campus because it's close to home.
Claudia Cortez, a 22-year-old junior from Brownsville, had planned to transfer to the Austin campus but decided to stay here to get her degree in communications and public relations.
In her time at UT-San Antonio, she says, the school's stature seems to have grown along with its population. She pointed to last year's appearance in the NCAA basketball tournament as a turning point in the school's history. "There was school spirit, pride," she said. "Suddenly, it started to feel like any other four-year university."
Admission standards at UT-San Antonio are similar to those at many of the state's public colleges and universities: Virtually everyone who applies is accepted. The open-door policy here reflects not only administrators' desire to meet the goals in the state's higher education plan, but also to comply with the Legislature's mandate at the school's founding in 1969 to "serve the needs of the multicultural population of San Antonio, the South Texas region and Texas."
But there's a price for open access: Students who haven't mastered the basics in high school often find themselves struggling.
More than a third of freshmen here do not return for their sophomore year; most having been dismissed for poor academic performance. Peer mentoring, supplemental instruction and academic advising are being expanded in an effort to improve retention rates.
"People seem to be just getting by," said Martha Chichil, a 24-year-old senior majoring in psychology. Chichil, who transferred to UT-San Antonio from California State University at Long Beach, says she is often surprised by the low level of college preparation some of her peers show.
"One girl was saying how in high school she didn't learn anything except how to take a test," Chichil said, relaying an online chat with classmates. "The people she was talking to were complaining about it, too. Only the scary thing was, they didn't spell 'too' correctly."
Paying for college is another strain. Students here get $129 million a year in grants and loans, but many still must work to make ends meet.
"I wouldn't be here without it," said William Taylor, a door-to-door salesman and Spanish major, referring to his $14,000 financial aid package. Some goes to the $5,300 annual tuition, but much of it goes to child support, rent and books.
With financial aid falling short of the need, a majority of students have jobs, and many work full time, said Rosalie Ambrosino, vice president for student affairs. And now that the state is looking to cut back on grants in favor of loans, the future is uncertain for many students here. That's especially true of Hispanic students, whose families are often uneasy about taking on debt.
"I'd like to see us expand the grant money because, realistically, if we do want to close the gap, we've got to meet them halfway," Romo said. "And, yes, we've got to go do the education part in which we go tell the parents, 'OK, but if he does get into need, let him borrow a little bit of money because he's going to get out and make a lot of money. And he can pay that back.' "
Selma Espericueta, a junior majoring in education, said it's important for students to keep the ultimate goal in mind: "to have a better life and job in the long run."
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