Texas: The Wrong Solution

Texas’s education plan doesn’t make too much sense, researchers say.

Texas is unique among states, but in many ways its size and demographics represent the nation. Texas, more specifically, has a lot of Hispanic students, and not a lot of college graduates. One of the state’s plans to address that has to do with creating more tier-one colleges. That’s probably not going to work. According to an article by Reeve Hamilton in The Texas Tribune:

The state… faces some stark racial and economic disparities in educational attainment, which, unless they are addressed, could exacerbate the state’s completion crisis as demographics shift. Despite these many moving parts, [University of Pennsylvania researcher Joni] Finney did note that the state’s “Closing the Gaps” plan addresses these issues. That plan seeks to bring Texas’ higher-education performance up to par with other states by 2015 — with a broad base support that Finney said she has not found in other states.

But she said the “Closing the Gaps” goals are unlikely to be reached unless the state addresses the financing of community colleges and reconsiders its investment in building more national research universities.

The majority of the state’s first-year college students are in community colleges, and that share is expected to grow. As tuition rises at four-year universities, many students opt — and are even encouraged — to begin at the cheaper two-year institutions.

In 2009, the report points out, students in Texas state colleges paid 72 percent more out of pocket than they did in 2003. That’s perhaps the important thing to address here.

The demographic group Texas needs to target, Finney says, if it wants to dramatically improve its education rate, is that composed of low-income students attending community colleges. It needs to improve the quality of its community colleges and reduce the cost of tuition at these institutions. Between 1985 and 2007 the proportion of community college expenses covered by the state declined from 61 percent to 28 percent. Because local taxes haven’t increased to make up the difference, students just have to pay higher tuition. That’s no way to get more people through college.

According to the report, by Finney and colleague Laura Perna, the goals Texas has set, “increasing college enrollment, raising the number of degrees awarded, pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national rankings, and luring more federal research dollars” are simply “not compatible,” not unless the state is prepared to massively increase state support for higher education, which it isn’t.

Part of the trouble here might be that the idea of building up more tier one universities might be attractive to funders and taxpayers, and might look like a nice way to attract federal research dollars and high-paying out-of-state students, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem Texas faces.

Texas, if it wants to become a well-educated state, needs more cheap community colleges. Texas is one of the biggest states in the union. It has lots and lots of residents who want to go to college. And those people don’t need, and won’t benefit from, “pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national rankings and luring more federal research dollars.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer