Education, If You Can Afford It


It’s almost hard to believe these days that not too long ago, tuition at Texas colleges and universities was the cheapest in the nation. This was keeping with a longstanding belief that higher education is good for kids, the state, and the civic body. At the state’s inception, Texas’ leaders understood that they had an obligation to provide access to education for citizens. As far back as 1839, the Congress of the Republic of Texas set aside 221,400 acres of land to fund higher education.

The Texas Legislature formally stepped away from this obligation in 2003, when it deregulated tuition. Since then, average tuitions in Texas have ballooned by more than 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. At the state’s flagship University of Texas at Austin, tuition has increased by 47 percent. The average graduate from UT leaves school $20,000 in debt. The universities, it can be argued, are simply compensating for the failure of legislators to fund higher education. Calculated on a per-student basis and adjusted for inflation, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that state support for public universities dropped from $5,873 in 2002-03 to $5,577 in 2005-06.

Sadly, Texas is just echoing national trends, according to a report in the Dallas Morning News. Nationally, at both public and private four-year colleges, tuition and fees have risen faster than inflation every year since 1980, according to the nonprofit College Board. And like our cost-heavy health care system, all that money isn’t putting us ahead. The United States spends more on higher education, as a percentage of gross domestic product, than any other industrialized country, according to the Education Department. Despite the money, USA Today reports that among industrialized countries, U.S. graduation rates for college students, based on students who finish an undergraduate degree in five years or less, dropped from 12th in 2005 to 16th in 2007.

The situation could get worse in Texas if pending tuition increases are adopted. Under the new proposals, UT’s tuition would increase between 13 percent and 22 percent over two years for in-state undergraduates, depending on major. That includes, as the Morning News notes, a 22 percent increase for nursing majors. This comes as the state faces a severe and growing shortage of nurses. Vacancy rates for nurses in hospitals range from 9.7 percent to 15.9 percent, according to the Texas Nursing Association.

When it comes to higher education, Texas seems to be heading in the wrong direction. The state faces a demographic boom of young minorities. How well it educates them will determine how prosperous and pleasant Texas is for everybody who lives here. In 2000, 18.2 percent of the labor force in Texas had a bachelor’s degree. According to projections by the state demographer, by 2040 that could fall to 12.9 percent if current trends continue.

In recognition of the looming challenge, state leaders and educators created something called “Closing the Gaps” to increase enrollment, particularly among minorities. The effort has met with some success. In the past year, enrollment has increased by 2 percent, with 1.2 million students enrolled in colleges and universities throughout the state. The target for 2010 is 1.4 million. Despite dramatic increases along the border where education is needed the most-UT-Brownsville had the highest percentage increase of students among public universities for the past year, adding 668-a 2007 report indicated that the state was “below target” for educating Hispanics, who overwhelmingly represent the demographic majority now coming of age.

To meet the need and reverse these trends will take nothing less than a dramatic commitment by state leaders and university administrators.