The University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University are headed into the new year with some uncertainty and a lot of questions about what will happen in the upcoming legislative session.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has already made its recommendations for the 83rd Texas legislative session, but no one is sure what will happen in the months to come.
The coordinating board is recommending that: 10 percent of state funding be based on student outcomes; the state reduce the number of hours students can take to earn their degrees; and the state restructure financial aid, including the TEXAS Grant and the B-on-Time Program.
Leaders from both local universities said that the recommendations may be good ideas, depending on how they are implemented.
“It’s really too early to know,” said Richard Nicholas, vice president of student life at TWU.
Outcomes-based funding means a percentage of the universities’ state-appropriated funds would depend on enrollment, retention rates and graduation rates. The coordinating board is recommending that 10 percent of funding be based on outcomes. Another bill already filed recommends that 25 percent of funding be based on outcomes.
Theoretically, it makes sense, UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson said.
The 10 percent being tossed around depends on how much is available for universities in the budget, he said.
It’s been a rough few years for Texas universities with all the budget cuts, despite enrollment being up across the state.
Jackson said that ideally, formula funding would reflect enrollment growth in the state.
He said he’d like the lawmakers to respect the importance of the investment in higher education.
By not increasing funding to keep up with enrollment, it produces some subtly negative events over time, Jackson said, including larger class sizes, fewer sections of classes, and universities are slower to make advances in research and adapt to workforce needs.
The coordinating board also recommended charging out-of-state tuition to students who have more than 135 semester credit hours for a 120-hour bachelor’s degree program.
Jackson said decreasing the time to earn a degree is a good thing.
“We have a space problem as a growing issue,” he said.
The question both Jackson and Nicholas are asking is: what is the right number of credit hours?
It’s an especially tricky question for transfer students and students who change their majors.
A university can’t help it if a student changes his or her major, especially if it is a transfer student who wasn’t counseled by the university, Jackson said. But the state is trying to align the curriculum better, he said.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Jackson said.
Part of the problem with reducing the time it takes students to earn a degree is that in the current economy, more students have jobs.
Nicholas said for the most part, TWU students don’t exceed the number of hours dramatically.
“One of the questions still being asked is: how do you measure an outcome like that?” Nicholas said. “And we’re all waiting to see.”
The coordinating board is also recommending the state restructure the TEXAS Grant and the B-on-Time Program.
Universities have been asked for information about how they administer the TEXAS Grant money, how many students have it, how many are eligible and the success rate of those who’ve received the grant, Nicholas said.
TWU awarded $2.1 million in TEXAS grants this fall, which includes continuing and freshmen students. About 650 students were eligible for the grant.
“But the funds ran out before we were able to award more,” Nicholas said.
The TEXAS Grant recommendation is one TWU will be watching closely, he said.
Jackson said the state wants to make sure the grants go to the students who are most likely to be successful by tightening the standards.
Jackson thinks the state’s higher education system could benefit from giving universities a block of money to be distributed instead of having one standard statewide, he said.
“I think it could be improved with some flexibility,” Jackson said.
Lawmakers are also expected to consider a tuition stability plan, which would help keep rates the same for students throughout their four years in college, he said.
“We believe it could be a valuable addition to the options,” Jackson said.
But university leaders will have to put together options of what that would look like because, again, with this recommendation there are questions to answer: would the fixed rate be shorter for transfer students and longer for students who can’t take a full load?
Another question this brings up is whether the university will just be shifting costs, Jackson said.
“We’re looking at it very carefully,” he said.
The session also gives universities the opportunity to have lawmakers consider their projects.
At this point, TWU has nothing specific to ask lawmakers for, Nicholas said.
The TWU Board of Regents was set to vote on moving forward with several building projects, including a new residence hall, parking structures and a student union, but the items were removed from the November agenda because TWU wants to see where the legislative session is going, Nicholas said. This was the same meeting Chancellor and President Ann Stuart announced her retirement, although she will remain for a year while the regents search for her successor.
“We are reviewing the project; we are reviewing timelines,” he said.
UNT leaders hope lawmakers will approve some building projects this year. There is a statewide package of buildings, and the Legislature hasn’t approved any building since 2006.
The Business Leadership Building is the last academic building UNT constructed. The university would like to add a research building and a building for the college of visual arts, Jackson said.
He said the university is optimistic the lawmakers will consider it.
Jackson hopes lawmakers will give serious consideration to higher education this legislative session because it provides the state with an educated workforce, he said.
“I don’t feel we’re suffering from lack of attention,” Jackson said.
“There is no question we are part of a national trend,” he said, adding that the cost of education shifted from taxpayers to students across the nation.
The general population sees higher education as a private benefit to the individual receiving it instead of a benefit for the public, Jackson said. The problem with that is that it becomes more expensive to students, and the more expensive it becomes, the less accessible, he said.
“It [higher education] would be a good investment in 2013,” Jackson said.
Nicholas said it’s too early to know how universities will be affected by the recommendations.
“The details that come out during the session will dictate how universities respond and how we feel about it,” Nicholas said.
RACHEL MEHLHAFF can be reached at 940-566-6889. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.