Sunday, January 09, 2011

Budget shortfall may gut higher ed, financial aid Read more:

Good summary of what's in store for higher education. A very important detail mentioned here is that higher education is not protected by constitutional mandates. So while some have the capacity to lobby it not enough to protect college access and opportunities. In fact, even a giant like UT is not free from the what's coming down.

Need is quickly being replaced by merit, and we know who this will impact.

As I noted in an earlier post, it's important for current college students to become versed on these issues.


By Melissa Ludwig
Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two years ago, legislators were talking big about building more Tier One research universities and putting Texas on the map for higher education.

As the 82nd legislative session kicks off Tuesday, higher education has turned into a fat target for budget cuts as legislators seek to patch a projected $20 billion shortfall.

Universities and colleges already have been asked to give back 7.5 percent of state dollars in this two-year budget cycle, and could face another 10 percent cut over the next two years. Financial aid may get chopped as well, some lawmakers fear.

“I think all of us felt as though we were making real progress for higher education in Texas after the 2009 session. Now, it looks like a lot of those gains will be lost,” said state Rep. Joaquín Castro, a San Antonio Democrat and vice chairman of the House higher education committee.

Public community colleges and universities already have begun grappling with budget cuts by increasing class sizes, shedding full-time employees and filling the teaching ranks with part-time professors.

Further cuts could force them to defer maintenance projects, reduce academic offerings and cut programs that aren't core to the teaching mission, according to college leaders.

It also could mean higher tuition for students and families, and in the case of community colleges, higher taxes for local property owners.

“It is going to be a tough session. (Lawmakers) are not going to raise taxes, we know that,” said Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. “There will be cuts, but no one knows where the cuts will be.”

Some lawmakers are pushing proposals to squeeze more productivity out of limited dollars by tweaking the higher education funding formula and criteria for the state grant program, but it's unclear whether those ideas can gain traction in a session consumed by wrangling over the budget.

“What am I going to do, throw a lady out of a nursing home or cut CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program)?” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. “The choices are all awful.”

Like the 2003 budget crisis, higher education is again a popular target for cuts because it doesn't carry a federal or constitutional mandate like Medicaid, public schools or prisons, said state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat who chairs the Senate higher education committee.

But unlike prisons, every dollar invested in higher education returns more than $5 to the Texas economy, according to the Texas comptroller.

The cuts come at a time when demographers project the state must double the percentage of adults with at least an associate's degree to 60 percent by 2030 to meet work force demand, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business.

The influential lobbying group is rooting for higher education, Hammond said, but reform is needed.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, students who entered Texas public higher education in 2003 and walked away without a degree cost $713 million in state and federal financial aid and $330 million in state appropriations.

“Completion is what counts,” Hammond said.

The group is backing a plan by the Coordinating Board to carve out 10 percent of state appropriations for universities and tie it to the number of bachelor's degrees awarded, with extra weight for at-risk students and high-demand fields such as science and math.

It would also stack up a university's actual six-year graduation rate to its “predicted” rate, given the university's student body makeup.

For community colleges, 10 percent of funding would be tied to “momentum points,” such as completing 15 or 30 credit hours, graduating or transferring to a university.

Local Democratic lawmakers are open to the proposal, but said it's unfair to crank up expectations while taking away money.

“Universities aren't going to be able to afford those programs to help (struggling) students succeed,” Van de Putte said.

Budgets already are on a tight wire.

In Bexar County, the Alamo Colleges are boosting average class sizes from 18 to 24, reducing full-time faculty and staff by 350 through attrition and early retirement, filling the teaching ranks with part-timers and canceling more classes because of low enrollment.

The colleges also have raised taxes and tuition, a trend that could continue if the cuts go deeper, said Bruce Leslie, the district's chancellor.

At public universities, average costs for students have jumped more than 70 percent since 2003. Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin have offered buyouts to tenured professors.

UTSA and Texas State University have avoided that tactic, but have left many jobs unfilled.

“Everybody's workload goes up,” said Bill Nance, vice president for finances at Texas State. “There are larger classes, longer lines paying tuition and fees, delays in this and that.”

Romo and Nance said they would rather suffer delays than gut initiatives aimed at helping at-risk students. They're also concerned about potential cuts to TEXAS grants, the state's grant program for needy students.

Efforts to cultivate more Tier One research universities in Texas also will face a challenge.

Last session, lawmakers created the $570 million National Research University Fund and put up $50 million for a wildly popular gift-matching program.

The fund money will not be touched, but given the budget crisis, it's unclear whether the matching program will be renewed.

“Are we going to slow the pace to (Tier One)? Sure, but it doesn't mean we shut down the shop,” Romo said. “The horse is out of the barn, and we are galloping.”

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