Texas colleges count economic blessings

December 12, 2009 8:56:08 PM PST
Denise Trauth, president of Texas State University, tries not to gloat. But when she meets with counterparts from across the nation, as she did at the annual gathering of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities recently, she feels fortunate to be in Texas. Many public colleges and universities across the nation are laying off employees, reducing student financial aid and taking other painful steps to cope with the economic downturn and declining state appropriations.

The University of North Alabama, for example, has raised tuition 9.5 percent in each of the past two years. California State University, Bakersfield, has scaled back academic programs and enrollment in response to a $15 million, or 25 percent, cut in the state portion of its budget. And Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has proposed merging three public, historically black universities to cut costs.

Institutions of higher learning in Texas haven't been immune to the belt-tightening. Hiring for many positions throughout the 15-campus University of Texas System is frozen. UT-Austin is laying off some staff members to free up money to retain and recruit top professors.

But schools in Texas, with its relatively strong economy, have largely been spared the harsh cuts taking place in many other states. Indeed, the Texas Legislature increased higher education funding this spring by $1.2 billion for the two-year budget and boosted financial aid by 35 percent, to $1 billion.

"We're in a wonderful situation, because we're still hiring faculty," said Trauth, whose biggest challenge is insufficient space to accommodate steady growth in enrollment, up nearly 6 percent from fall 2008 to 30,816 students this fall, according to preliminary figures compiled by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The Legislature did not authorize bonds this year for construction projects to ease the crowding.

David Watts, president of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, which received a modest increase in state funding as a result of higher enrollment, said, "We feel fortunate that the Texas Legislature has done careful and cautious work to support higher education."

But Trauth, Watts and other higher education leaders in Texas are looking to the 2011 session of the state Legislature with apprehension. The reason: State lawmakers allocated $327 million in federal stimulus money to the state's public colleges and universities nearly half earmarked to make up for a shortfall in state funding and hardly anyone expects another injection of stimulus money from Washington.

"We are worried about a hole in the Texas budget that was filled with stimulus money," said Trauth, whose campus received $7.2 million in stimulus funds allocated by state lawmakers.

Watts said a committee at UT-Permian Basin has been studying administrative and academic programs with an eye toward suggesting reductions if they become necessary.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the San Antonio meeting that the administration is seeking congressional approval for billions of dollars in new higher education spending but that it would be unrealistic for campus leaders to expect that they won't have to make difficult decisions about allocating resources.

Institutions of higher learning are facing a paradox: accommodating more and more students at a time when financial resources to educate them are on the decline, said Diana Oblinger, president and CEO of Educause, a Colorado-based nonprofit organization that seeks to advance higher education by promoting the use of information technology. Enrollment is up nationwide not only because of growth in the college-age population but also because the economic downturn has prompted many people to pursue new or additional training.

Oblinger encouraged campus leaders to use online databases and other electronic resources for everything from stargazing to environmental monitoring. Cost savings also can be realized by using digitized books, which offer the additional benefit of search mechanisms that quickly find certain words or phrases, she said. And with many students using commercial e-mail programs such as Gmail, campuses might not have to go to the expense of setting up their own systems, she added.

The fiscal challenges are compounded by the fact that college students increasingly hail from low-income families, are the first generation in their families to enroll, or attended weak urban high schools, said Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. More and more students need developmental education services to bring their skills in math, reading and writing up to speed, she said.

Texas, with its growing population of low-income and Hispanic students, is in many ways a microcosm of national trends. Higher education enrollment in the Lone Star State rose 9 percent, to 1.4 million students, in the past year, according to preliminary figures from the coordinating board.

Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner, has warned that enrollment rates among Hispanics and male African Americans are not rising sufficiently. Watts, the UT-Permian Basin president, said Hispanics at his school have higher retention rates than Anglos, though their high school graduation rates are lower.

"The state that gets this right is the state that's going to be the leader in the future," Watts said. "Texas is well-focused on the problem."


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