Patrick, Higher Ed Leaders Disagree on Cost of New Graduation Plan


Dan Patrick
Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston)

Reworking Texas’ high school diploma requirements is one of the most popular ideas at the Capitol these days, right up there with scaling back the now widely-reviled STAAR test. Business leaders are particularly excited about new graduation plans that would encourage students to take career prep courses on their way to a full high school diploma.

Senate Education chair Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 3 is one of a handful of bills that would make that possible, and for a while it was hard to find anyone who disagreed with it—right up until the morning of the bill’s committee hearing.

That’s when Patrick heard the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board was projecting his bill would cost the state an extra $2.3 million a year, just to cover remedial classes for the less-prepared graduates Texas high schools would be sending to college under Patrick’s plan. That’s not counting the extra tuition students would have to pay, or the cost colleges and universities would shoulder.

In place of the three-tiered diploma system Texas uses today, Patrick proposes a single college diploma with three endorsements students can choose between: business and industry, “academic achievement” in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or arts and humanities; or distinguished.

After a few tweaks to Patrick’s bill, the projected cost to the state has since been adjusted down to about $1 million a year, but the Higher Ed Coordinating Board still estimates more than 2,500 more students will end up in college unprepared.

Texas students who earn diplomas with what’s known as the “four-by-four”—four years of math, science, English and social studies—are eligible for automatic admission to state universities today. Under Patrick’s plan, a graduate from any diploma path could gain automatic admission, even though higher ed officials say only the STEM or distinguished plans could match the four-by-four. The fight here in Texas is brewing just as some other states consider making high schools shoulder the cost of their graduates’ remedial college classes.

University of Texas at Austin spokesman Gary Susswein said the university is reviewing SB 3 closely to better understand its potential impact.

“As Texas considers new requirements for high school graduation, it is vital that the graduates are well prepared to continue their education, whether they’re enrolling in community college, technical school or a four-year university,” Susswein said.

Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman Dominic Chavez said he recognizes the importance of giving students flexibility and a chance to pursue career and technical learning, but that a student who plans to work in a Toyota factory should still finish high school with the skills they’d need for college someday.

“We don’t want to lock anyone into the notion that you can get a skill in, say, high school, get a good job at Toyota, stay there for 30 years of your life, and retire,” Chavez said. “That economy is gone.”

Chavez said Patrick’s plan is a lot like Texas’ recommended high school program back in 2004—and that year became a reference point for calculating the number of unprepared students under SB 3.

Chavez said keeping the four-by-four is ideal, but he recognizes there’s strong momentum behind SB 3. The board, he said, just wants to make sure some important courses go back into Patrick’s graduation requirements—Algebra II, for instance, which he said is a key to college readiness. “I wouldn’t say this is the Coordinating Board waving a white flag,” he said. “Our commissioner’s been talking often with the senator. … They’ve had very frank conversations.”

The resistance from higher ed leaders was frustrating for Patrick, who told the Observer his bill makes Texas’ high school requirements more rigorous, not less.

“There’s nothing in this bill to my understanding—and I know the bill backwards and forwards—that would indicate that students might need more remedial work in college,” Patrick said. “People can make that argument, but they can’t win the argument. Therefore, why would you need a fiscal note for college readiness if we’ve added rigor across the spectrum? No one can show me.”

Patrick’s argument is that his graduation plans wouldn’t make graduation less challenging, but give students the choice of which challenges to take up. He didn’t seem to sympathize with the concerns about sending some students to college without the four-by-four, or the price tag higher ed leaders hung on his bill.

“No, no,” Patrick said. “They’re just wrong, OK? God love ‘em. They’re just wrong.”