Must state starve its colleges?

The more public universities need, they less they get from Legislature

May 7, 2005
Houston Chronicle

Public support for higher education is declining all over the country. In state after state, support is going down. Tuition is going up.

In 2002, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University barely made the US News & World Report's top fifty50.

That's right - the top 50.

And that was three years ago in the good old days. Today, UT-Austin is 46th. A&M is 62nd.

Texas is spinning downward. We have already plunged past mediocrity in health care, poverty and environment. Must we do so in education as well?

Never mind what past generations have provided for us in education. What has posterity ever done for me? Education and, in particular, higher education, has weak legislative support. That is strange because virtually all legislators are college graduates, mostly from public universities, yet public higher and secondary education are being starved.

Legislators are saying, "Pull up the ladder, Jack. I've got mine."

The best law the United States U.S. Congress ever passed was the GI Bill of Rights. It remade higher education and the nation. The GI bill after World War II created a great demand for admissions. As demand continued to grow with the baby boomers (and now their echo) and a tremendous increase in the percentage of high school graduates seeking a college education, reputation, money and demand became the underpinnings of prestige - money being among the strongest. Many of the parameters used by US News are tied to institutional wealth.

A few state universities came out of the pack. Virginia, Michigan, Berkeley and North Carolina are known as the "public Ivies."

Instead of a few hundred college students, today we have 15,000,000 - 80 percent in public universities. Distinctions are shifting between public and private universities. Early on, state universities and colleges got nearly all their money from state tax dollars with little coming from students or gifts. Private universities were dependent on tuition dollars, benefactors or "contributed service" from priests and nuns. Now, private universities get more and more public dollars through federal student aid, Pell grants, Perkins grants, Tuition Equalization Grants and contracts.

At the same time, public universities are growing faster than the legislative will to pay for them, so students pay more. State universities are no longer highly subsidized from tax dollars. State universities used to be called "state-supported." Today, "state-assisted" might be a better term. How about "state-located"? After all, they are on state land. Some wags even say "state-molested."

Important differences remain between the publics and the privates, but they are more in governance than fiscal.

Interestingly enough there seems to be a negative correlation among the publics in terms of percent of state funding and prestige. Public universities that get the fewest state dollars have the most prestige. For example, the University of Michigan gets only 10 percent of its budget from appropriated funds. The University of Virginia gets eight. (The University of Texas at San Antonio gets 27 percent.)

The greatest difference between private and public universities of higher education is in governance and autonomy. The privates have a great advantage here.

Language tells the tale.

Board members of private universities are called "trustees." They see themselves as advocates of the college, supporters of its president and leaders in fund-raising. Board members of state universities are called "regents" - rulers rather than advocates. They see themselves as overseers, representatives of the appointing authority, usually the state governor, and occasionally interfere in educational and social policy matters.

Legislative control of budgets by the Legislature and curriculum by the Coordinating Board, statewide control of programming and physical plants, tuition-setting authority at the state level, enrollment caps, collective bargaining agreements and much more constitute the list of differences in autonomy between the publics and the privates, with the privates coming out the winner in most cases.

The recent decision of the Texas Legislature to give tuition authority to the universities and their boards is an exception. Or at least it was until the Legislature, when regents actually did raise tuition, the Legislature said, "We didn't really mean it. We're going to investigate you." Of course, it remains to be seen whether or not the Legislature will further reduce appropriations as tuition rises.

Through all of this we are witnessing a dramatic reduction in public support for higher education and a shift of the burden to students and their families.

Fiscal strategies that encouraged the previously excluded - the poor and what were then called minorities - to attend college no longer have the support they once did. Texas, for example, has - or had - a tuition prepayment program called Texas 2000. My wife and I bought prepayment packages for all our grandchildren - the best investment we ever made. But even that program has now been suspended because of declining public support and the resultant tuition increases.

The shift in support from grants to loans, along with the large increases in tuition, and fees at all universities place a financial burden that may frighten away those students who are the first in their families to seek a college education.

Those who will be excluded from college are the growth sectors of our society, the base needed to ensure an educated work force in the future. If affordable educational opportunities decline, workers will be imported, or work will be exported. Neither is good of our state or country.

Why are our leaders in Austin so determined that Texas be a mediocre state?

Hobby is a former lieutenant governor of Texas.