Sunday, November 21, 2010

Proposals floated to 'reinvent public higher education'

Coordinating board wants to revise funding formula, financial aid.

Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

The state's higher education agency called Thursday for sweeping changes in policy, including a revised method of funding community colleges and public universities, a greater emphasis on merit for certain financial aid and a series of cost-cutting measures.

The proposals, which would require legislative action, come at a difficult time for higher education: Enrollment is surging just as the state's finances are looking increasingly bleak.

The latest estimates put the overall shortfall at about $24 billion for the next two-year budget.

"We want to reinvent public higher education — reinvent it in a more cost-efficient way and reinvent it in a way that gives better academic results," said Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes.

"And we think that we can do that. I'm sure we'll need more financial resources over time, but not nearly as much as we would need if we didn't change the way we deliver education."

Members of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Paredes' agency, approved the various recommendations unanimously at a meeting in Austin. The proposals now go to Gov. Rick Perry and the Legislature.

The coordinating board also announced that statewide enrollment this fall is up 7.2 percent from a year ago, to 1.5 million students, based on a preliminary head count. The final count is expected to be 2 to 6 percent lower. The figures include all postsecondary institutions except private, for-profit colleges.

The recommendations on cost-cutting were developed for the coordinating board by a 20-member advisory panel of higher education leaders and business executives led by Fred W. Heldenfels IV , the board's chairman. Perry issued an executive order last year directing the board to look for savings, and perhaps not surprisingly, some recommendations echo policies the governor has urged lawmakers to adopt in recent years.

The coordinating board wants 10 percent of the base funding for universities to be indexed to so-called "student outcomes," such as graduation rates; total degrees awarded; degrees awarded to students from low-income families or those otherwise deemed at-risk; and degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and other fields considered high-priority.

Ten percent of community college funding would be on the basis of degrees awarded, certificates completed, college-level math course completions and other performance measures.

Currently, base funding is strictly a function of enrollment. Paredes said the recommendation was limited to 10 percent of base funding to avoid making draconian changes in the middle of a budget crisis. But that should be enough to prompt improvements, he said, and the percentage could be ramped up later.

These and other recommendations could save $4.2 billion over four years by raising graduation rates and achieving other cost efficiencies, Heldenfels said.

The coordinating board also wants to step up the merit component in allocation of financial aid awards called Texas Grants to students from low-income families.

Those with strong academic credentials would get priority. A similar proposal suggested by Paredes didn't get approved by lawmakers last year.

Lawmakers won't write the state's budget, including the higher education portion, until they meet in Austin next year. But Heldenfels acknowledged that it will be a challenging legislative session.

The first goal is to preserve base funding and financial aid, Heldenfels said. The coordinating board also hopes to get extra funding to accommodate enrollment growth. But if higher education takes a big hit, the sense among chancellors and presidents is that there's no way to avoid tuition increases, he said.

Results released today from a public opinion poll conducted for the American-Statesman and four other Texas newspapers might not help the coordinating board's cause.

Among registered voters who were surveyed, one quarter said that to close the budget deficit, they would cut universities and junior colleges more than public education, health services for poor people and public safety .; 445-3604

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