Legislature could halt, reverse progress at UT-Brownsville

By Carlos Guerra, Columnist
San Antonio Express-News
February 27, 2005

The University of Texas at Brownsville is one of the state's newest universities. But it operates in partnership with one of Texas' oldest community colleges.

"Folks think that if it's in the Valley, it got there last," says UT-Brownsville President Juliet García. "But we started as a community college in 1926; it was the first (junior college) in Texas to be accredited."

And when UT-Brownsville was created in 1991, she says, "we simply put it on top of the community college."

The university has been one of Texas' fastest-growing, and is unique in that it offers vocational programs and associate's baccalaureate and master's degrees.

"What we inherited was called UT-Pan American-Brownsville, which offered some classes and a few degrees here," García says. "We amplified what they were doing and are now offering three times as many baccalaureate degrees and four times as many graduate degrees as in 1991."

In just 13 years, enrollment has grown to 12,000 and the faculty to 600 full- and part-time professors and researchers. Traditional studies programs have been beefed up, and many new, innovative programs, such as studies in the physics department's Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, have been added.

But after the budget cuts made by the 2003 Legislature, and additional cutbacks that are being recommended for the next biennium, García worries that UT-Brownsville's impressive gains — and progress statewide — will be stopped and possibly even reversed.

Unlike other Texas schools, UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American don't get Permanent University Fund money, so much of their growth has been funded with tuition revenue bonds. Some lawmakers now want to stop the state from servicing this debt.

And virtually all of UT-Brownsville's new studies programs have been paid with institutional enhancement money given to border-area schools as part of the South Texas/Border Initiative. Many legislators want to cut this funding in half.

If the idea was to make more border area residents college-educated, this school is succeeding.

"If you look at the participation rate of higher-ed statewide, Valley people have gone to college at about half that rate," García says.

"So half of our job has been to meet the pent-up demand from people who wanted to go to school but didn't have access to it who are now back for that education. These might be 25 to about 55.

"The other half is the new crop of 18-year-olds of a community that is much younger than the average in Texas, the fastest-growing population in the state."

And like most Texas schools, many of UT-Brownsville's students differ markedly from the stereotype of a "traditional student."

"We are often talking about a 25-year-old who is married, has a kid and a job," García says.

All indications are that demand for accessible, affordable higher education will keep growing in the border area well into the future.

"According to the (Texas Higher Education) Coordinating Board — our projections are that we will grow even faster — we will be at 20,000 students by 2020," she says, but wonders how they will be able to adequately provide for them.

"We grew 18 percent in enrollment just since the last legislative session, and now we're trying to do it with less funds," García says. "We turned students away this year. If they cut funds again, imagine what's going to happen."

To contact Carlos Guerra,

call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra at express-news.net.