Carlos Guerra: Will reduced budget reverse gains of South Texas universities?

By: Carlos Guerra, Columnist
San Antonio Express-News
February 24, 2005

For a century, Texas government leaders didn't think border area residents needed much higher learning. While state universities were built elsewhere and quickly diversified their offerings, the few colleges serving the border area focused on producing teachers and meeting a few other local needs.

When area leaders finally started pressing Austin for a fair share of higher-education resources, existing border institutions were turned into orphan campuses of the UT and Texas A&M systems, but funding wasn't significantly increased.

Not until a lawsuit threatened state leaders with losing control of state universities did the border get a significant infusion of resources. It triggered major expansions at the UT's El Paso, Pan American and San Antonio campuses, Sul Ross and Texas A&M's Kingsville and Corpus Christi campuses, and creation of UT campuses in downtown San Antonio and Brownsville and Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Enrollment in these schools has not stopped growing since.

Because Texas' funding formula left the new and newly expanded schools at a decided disadvantage, "catch-up" funding was provided as "institutional enhancement" money, a "special" budget item.

Now, lawmakers are looking to cut that funding in half to help pay for a revamping of public school finance system.

Texas' "tremendous commitment to South Texas" is yielding remarkable results, says Texas A&M International President Ray Keck III, but a 50 percent cut in institutional enhancement funds would reverse a decade of progress made by border-area universities.

"'Institutional enhancement' is called a 'special item,' and people who don't understand the history of this will say, 'We don't have enough money for special things,'" he says. "But that's what the Legislature chose to call it 10 years ago, and what looks like a frill has really become base funding for South Texas universities."

UTSA President Ricardo Romo also is concerned, in part because his school's enrollment is expected to grow to 41,000 in just 10 years.

"We're 26,000 students strong but we're only getting funded for about 22,000 because of a combination of factors," Romo says. "We don't get full funding from the formula and we're always two years behind on base funding."

The border schools' enrollment growth has created enormous fiscal strains, and it will continue because the area's dramatic population boom is not slowing.

"A (institutional enhancement) shortfall will impact faculty hiring," says Romo, who like other border school administrators uses much of it for payroll. "We need to be hiring about 75 (new faculty members) a year just to keep up with our faculty-student ratio, and ours, at 24-to-1, is the highest."

"If the cut of half of institutional enhancement money happens, we will lose 70 faculty members because half of our faculty is funded with it," says Laredo's Keck. "We will probably have to shrink the university from 4,200 students to about 3,000."

Shortly after the new millennium arrived, the state issued "Closing the Gaps," an ambitious plan for dramatically increasing university enrollment, especially of "nontraditional" students, and upgrading state schools' excellence.

"We are doing our part to close the gaps," Romo says of his school's rapid growth and its new higher-degree programs but laughed, saying, "But the reward system seems suspect. I guess our reward is spiritual."


To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra AT express-news.net.