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Lawmakers push back on higher education funding requests

February 13, 2019 GMT

AUSTIN—State lawmakers on Tuesday challenged several proposals offered by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and expressed concerns about the rising costs of higher education, during a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

The committee also heard budget requests from universities throughout the state.

The higher education board requested roughly $118 million for education initiatives, including improving the transferability of college courses throughout the state, the development of an open educational resource repository that could combat rising costs of textbooks and $112.6 million toward the Texas Grant program, the largest grant program in the state.

The board’s requests are a part of its goal to equip 60 percent of adults between the ages 25 and 34 with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2030 and to make college education easier to obtain and affordable for all students.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes stressed the importance of financial aid and serving students who are experiencing financial hardship, poverty and homelessness on campuses throughout the state.

“These are traditional students now,” Paredes said. “These are the students of the future and we need to make sure we nurture them.”

Lawmakers pushed back, many stating that the board and legislature have been discussing the same issues for years.

“You talk a lot about affordability, but I just don’t see it happening, especially at the larger schools,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said to Paredes. “… It keeps getting more expensive for our kids.”

Paredes said progress has been made within the last decade, but Huffman wasn’t swayed.

“How can you say that when it keeps getting more expensive?” Huffman retorted. “... It’s very concerning. We want some answers.”

Paredes said various factors, like declining support for funding at the state level and acquiring the latest technology for faculty and staff to conduct research and provide students with a first-rate education, have contributed to rising college costs. Ensuring students’ courses can transfer to other schools and that they are able to complete their degree within four years without excess credits, can help decrease the costliness of colleges, he added.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said transferability of courses and the fact that students acquire more credit hours than needed has been a topic they’ve discussed for well over 10 years. She said it was inexcusable that the issue hasn’t been solved sooner.

“I know you’ve been working on it,” Nelson said to Paredes. “But it’s time.”

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, also challenged Paredes on his notion of performance-based funding.

“Why should we be incentivizing universities to [do] what they should be doing in the first place?” he said.

Paredes emphasized that funding would largely help students who are experiencing financial difficulty or poverty. That population is the most expensive to serve because they require more time, mentoring, advising and other resources, he said.

Despite the pushback from the Senate on certain requests, lawmakers expressed their appreciation to Paredes, who announced earlier this year that he will resign in August after 19 years.

“We’re glad you’re sticking us through the session,” said Nelson.

The board’s presentation, which took around an hour including pressing questions from the Senate, largely set the tone for the remainder of the hearing. Sen.

West later questioned state colleges and universities, who are presenting proposals over the next week and a half to the legislature, about their progress in open source materials, transferability of their courses, services to students formerly in foster care, and student debt. The colleges, largely focused on their hope to maintain and expand formula funding and their special budget requests.

President Austin A. Lane of Texas Southern University , the largest historically black university in the state, requested $4 million to help maintain and enhance the pathways for students to complete their education.

The college is looking to host mandatory case management advising for students, to partner with local community colleges to ensure that the transfer process is easier and to also ensure students are not racking up more credit hours than needed. Lane hopes to implement an auditing degree program that will require advisors to meet with students once they complete 30, 60 and 90 credits to ensure that they’re on the right track. Lane asked for another $12 million for TSU facilities after the 92-year-old campus suffered some damage in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Texas A&M University President Michael Young testified that there was a noteworthy disparity in student funding between the College Station flagship and the University of Texas at Austin, which reportedly receives $860 more per student per year than A&M. Young also stated that A&M has not seen an increase in formula funding since 2008 despite adding 17,000 more students.

“That’s bigger than most other universities in the state,” Young told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. “The consequences of that, we’ve been disadvantaged by the formula funding.”

Young requested $55 million, half the amount needed to close the gap, he said.

“With that money, I could hire close to 200 additional professors to serve students and get faculty more in line with institutions that all the universities in Texas compete with,” he said.

Texas A&M University-Galveston, known for its marine and maritime programs, requested $58.3 million for its Immersive Scholarship and Learning Environment (ISLE) building, a learning environment for professionals and students in the maritime industry, and around $678,000 to provide services for the Exploration to Graduation program, which would provide academic and support services for students in hopes of improving retention and graduation rates.

Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU and part of the Texas A&M University system, requested a $14.9 million match for their government funding, as well as additional funding for academic support services.

Texas A&M University-San Antonio President Cynthia Matson requested $55 million to assist in the second phase of construction for the school’s college of business, which has had a temporary home since its inception. Matson also requested $2 million to support student and academic success initiatives and that $1.4 million of formula funding be restored.

Lamar University in Beaumont requested $45 million for a building, which will be dedicated to online digital learning, according to President Kenneth Evans. The university will also requested that legislation that reduces or eliminates costs in relation to facilities or fees involved with online learning not be approved.

Evans stated that the college currently serves various students throughout the state, as well as students in around 30 states and 23 countries. The university has also requested $14.5 million in Hurricane Harvey relief, which would help the university recover after losing enrollment and students in the aftermath of the storm. Evans said he has also asked lawmakers to assist Lamarwith funding the Hazelwood exemption, which provides free tuition and fees to veterans, their spouses and children for up to 150 hours.

The exemption is ultimately supported by student fees and tuition.

britttany.britto@chron.com

@brittanybritto