A Step Back for State Universities?

Texas’ emerging research universities—and low-income students—stand to suffer from budget cuts.
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This week the leaders of Texas’ higher education system took the stand in front of the Senate Finance Committee with a unified message: Don’t give up on us now. With college enrollment surging across the state, the Senate’s proposed budget, which cuts between 20 and 25 percent across the system, would deal a serious blow to public colleges and universities.

“One of things that gave me great pride was the momentum that this Legislature established for us over the past four years,” testified University of Texas System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. “Other states were looking at this great state of Texas because of the great decisions you made.” But, he warned, the proposed cuts will “adversely impact access, affordability and excellence.”

Not only would proposed cuts result in a purging of university faculty and staff, but they would also hurt Texas’s goal of bringing more universities into the Tier One category, often referred to as “national research universities.” Currently Texas has just three Tier One universities: Rice, Texas A&M and UT-Austin.

Last session, the Legislature passed House Bill 51, which offered incentives to seven “emerging research universities”—Texas Tech University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, and University of Texas campuses in Arlington, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio—to improve their research programs.

Chancellor Cigarroa told the senators that emerging research universities need sustained funds to recruit outstanding faculty, enhance research, lower student-faculty ratios and improve graduation rates.

Presidents of those aspiring Tier One schools took a similar line: Pride for what they’ve built, and concern about the impact of retrenching now.

“What a difference two years makes,” said James Spaniolo, president of UT-Arlington. “It’s my hope that the bold vision … will be sustained even as we navigate the current fiscal reality.”

Spaniolo said that 100 administrative positions had already been eliminated at his school under previous cuts ordered by Gov. Rick Perry. Further reductions, he said, would “pose serious challenges to UT-Arlington’s capacity to serve a rapidly-growing, highly diverse, heavily first-generation student population.”

Low-income students will also be adversely affected by pronounced cuts, the leaders warned. Not only will it be harder for them to get accepted to universities not growing fast enough to keep up with demand, but much needed financial aid will also go missing.

“I was just looking at numbers for UT-El Paso,” Cigarroa said. “If Texas Grants gets cut 41 percent, 1,000 students are going to be impacted by that. If you’re on that margin that’s so dependent on Texas Grants to enroll in college, that’s going to slow down the process. So the vulnerable population will be most impacted.”

The Finance chair, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, attempted to assuage some of Chancellor Cigarroa’s apprehensions, saying that before the budgeting process is over there’ll be more money for higher education than there is now. He wouldn’t say how much—just “not as much as we’d like.”