Friday, December 22, 2006

Business group calls for overhauling higher education

Check out what's being recommended right now--an overhaul of Texas higher education called "The Texas Compact." Among the recommendations are what will likely become high-stakes testing at the higher education level and the creation of a corporation that will replace the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Stay tuned for proposals this legislative session which begins soon on January 9th. -Angela

Business group calls for overhauling higher education
Recommendations include creation of a powerful new oversight agency and an increase in financial aid.

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
Friday, December 22, 2006

A panel that advises Gov. Rick Perry is calling for the creation of a new and powerful entity to oversee higher education along with an increase in financial aid for students from low-income families and mandatory testing to measure achievement and learning in college.

The latest draft of a report by the Governor's Business Council also recommends giving the state's two public flagship campuses, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station, more independence to focus on research and graduate education. It says greater restraints should be imposed on other campuses that aspire to become research universities without the essential private sector and regional support.

The recommendations are certain to be controversial among lawmakers and higher education leaders, particularly one calling for a new entity, organized as a public corporation, to replace the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The Texas Higher Education Board proposed by the business council would have greater authority, responsibility and stature. It would be the final authority on the creation of new campuses and the addition of new degree programs, and it would be in charge of developing a long-range financing plan to achieve statewide educational goals. The Legislature historically has played a strong role in such matters, but the report concludes that it is necessary to insulate policymaking from "institutional, regional or political pressures."

The report emerged from a review that began more than a year ago at Perry's request. Despite its name, the Governor's Business Council is not an arm of the governor's office. Rather, it is a nonprofit organization of the state's top business executives, but governors from both political parties have sought its advice for years.

It's not clear which, if any, recommendations Perry might endorse. Members of his staff, as well as the governor himself, have said in recent weeks that he is working on a higher education initiative for the legislative session that begins next month.

"We need to look at ways to make higher ed more affordable, more accessible, more efficient," Perry told the Austin American-Statesman last month.

Kathy Walt, his special assistant for communications, said the governor's interests include securing greater transparency in higher education budgets.

"He'll be laying out some higher ed issues in coming weeks that go to issues of accessibility and affordability," Walt said. "We're going to let the governor make his announcement when he's ready to."

The governor might do so during his state-of-the-state address in February, she said.

Some of the business council's recommendations echo themes in a report issued earlier this year by a panel advising U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. That panel, led by Houston investor Charles Miller, a former chairman of the UT System regents, called for, among other things, testing of students to assess their intellectual gains during college and greater transparency about colleges' spending practices.

The business council paints a grim picture of the state's future if current trends are not reversed: a less-educated population, a decline in per capita income and reduced tax revenues.

"Our education pipeline is leaking badly. Only 13 percent of Texas ninth-graders graduate with a degree or certificate nine years later," the report concludes. "It is time for Texas to take a hard look at our system of higher education."

Such warnings aren't new, but noteworthy is that an influential organization of business leaders has taken them to heart. Studies by the coordinating board have shown that, although college enrollment is increasing, Hispanics aren't keeping up. Because Hispanics are the fastest-growing population group in Texas, that trend is worrisome.

One factor in lagging enrollment and graduate rates could be a shortfall in financial aid. More than 70,000 students eligible for a Texas Grant aren't getting one because full funding would require nearly twice the $332 million allotted to the program in the current two-year budget, according to the coordinating board. The business council did not specify how much financial aid should increase.

The council's report focuses on public colleges and universities because only about 10 percent of the 1.2 million students enrolled in postsecondary education in Texas attend private institutions, said Woody Hunt, a former UT System regent who chairs the council's committee on higher education. Hunt said the council hired the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit organization in Boulder, Colo., to help prepare the report.

"We're waiting for the governor's response to the report," Hunt said. "I think there's a very compelling case that some change is necessary."

Improving higher education

Recommendations in a draft report from the Governor's Business Council:

•Enact legislation, dubbed "the Texas Compact," to establish long-term goals for educating students to globally competitive levels and building top-quality universities.

•Replace the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with a new entity organized as a public corporation and given authority, responsibility and status to pursue long-range plans despite regional and political pressures.

•Increase funding for Texas Grants, the main state-funded financial aid program.

•Require public colleges and universities to measure their students' achievement and improvement over time and to be more transparent about costs and other operational matters.

•Free the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University at College Station from some state and university system constraints to increase their focus on research and graduate education.

•Emphasize, through state appropriations and other mechanisms, the undergraduate teaching mission of most of the state's four-year public schools.; 445-3604. Additional material from staff writer W. Gardner Selby.

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1 comment:

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