State has work to do on higher education

Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Monday, September 20, 2004

A national report card on higher education released this week found students in Texas and elsewhere better prepared for college, but too few of them are enrolling and graduating.

The report singled out for particular note that the cost of college is pricing many students out of the classroom. Measuring Up 2004, the state report card on higher education, gave 36 states failing grades on college affordability. Only California, Utah and Minnesota received a grade of C or better.

Texas received a D on affordability, largely because college expenses are a larger percentage of household income. "Texas has made no notable progress in making higher education affordable," the report noted. That's not surprising. After the Legislature deregulated tuition for state universities, tuition and fee costs rose by more than 35 percent at the University of Texas and by lesser amounts at other state schools.

However, most states are in poorer shape than Texas in that regard. As the head of the group preparing the report told The New York Times, "After 20 years of working on school reform, we seem to be getting kids more college-prepared. But 20 years of reducing state support has made it harder for these kids to get into college and to get through."

Raymund Paredes, the new state commissioner of higher education, said college is affordable in Texas but the state will be hard pressed to meet the increased demand for financial aid for the next wave of students. Affordability must be a priority for state leaders.

Texas did get high marks for the percentage of high school students enrolled in higher level math courses and for the number of low-income families earning a high school diploma. Also, the percentage of freshmen returning for their second year of college was high.

But the report made it clear that Texas has a long way to go in closing the performance gap between white and minority students and in improving the percentage of young adults with high school diplomas. Whites are more than twice as likely as minorities to have a bachelor's degree. "This is among the widest gaps in the country on this measure," the report stated.

Realizing that minorities are the fastest growing sector of the population, Texas educators have focused for several years on increasing minority participation in higher education. Increasing the percentage of minorities in college is a primary goal of the state's plan for the future, called Closing the Gaps by 2015.

A report in July found college enrollment numbers on the rise for blacks and Hispanics. But that good news was offset by the failure of Hispanic enrollment to meet projections.

In 2003, Hispanics were nearly 25 percent of the college population in Texas and blacks made up just more than 11 percent. The percentage of white students dropped to 53.2 percent from 56 percent.

Educators know that higher education for Hispanics and blacks is vital to the state's future.

Efforts to boost minority enrollment and increase the number of college graduates must be an ongoing effort. And those goals depend on keeping college affordable, which in turn means more opportunities for grants, low-interest loans and other financial strategies.

It is axiomatic that if Texas wants to increase the percentage of minorities in college and with degrees, it must keep higher education affordable.

The full report on Texas and the other states can be found online at www.highereducation.org