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Other Voices: State must fully fund universities

The chancellors of Texas’ major university systems represent schools that compete for students, research dollars and sports titles.

Yet in meeting with The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board recently, Kent Hance of Texas Tech University, Francisco Cigarroa of the University of Texas, Lee Jackson of the University of North Texas, John Sharp of Texas A&M University, Renu Khator of the University of Houston and Brian McCall of Texas State University spoke as one about the return Texas taxpayers earn from the state’s investment in their campuses.

Unfortunately, colleges often have been an afterthought during budget time in Austin. Legislators may not hear the chancellors’ message next year because of the populist revolt against the rising costs of a degree.

Indeed, many families struggle to afford college. As Texas universities work to hold down costs — some have even adopted $10,000-degree programs — lawmakers should focus on university funding challenges earlier in the legislative session to assure they get priority attention.

Texas’ universities benefit students and the state’s economy. The state gains from skilled workers who earn good salaries, whether through the work they do, the taxes they pay, or the jobs they attract — not to mention support services the state doesn’t need to provide those who are employed. College work can even affect a student’s ability to survive a recession.

University leaders aren’t expecting lawmakers to just open their wallets. They simply want legislators to fully fund the formulas the state is supposed to use in allocating university dollars. That’s about an additional $350 million, an affordable sum given state revenue projections. At the same time, these chancellors welcome funding strategies that rely upon market principles.

For example, they embrace linking part of their funding to their number of graduates. Not every student can finish in four years, but we applaud efforts at premier institutions to establish a culture around the expectation of graduating within four years.

For their part, legislators need to recognize the realities universities face. Their state funding is down about $1 billion over the last budget cycle, while their enrollments are increasing. As one example, Tech had $67 million less in state funds for this biennium, but 2,000 more students.

Also, legislators haven’t authorized any tuition revenue bonds since 2006. Schools use this money to build facilities, but legislators haven’t approved such expenditures for a long time.

This isn’t the way to build up Texas. Along with educating students, the research these universities produce strengthens Texas’ intellectual capital, much like Bay Area schools made California an innovative high-tech force.

Texas won’t get the full benefit if legislators don’t adequately finance them. Budget-writers surely will face competing interests next year, but they must give priority to good rates of return — the kind universities provide.

The Dallas Morning News