Ready for a Fight

Supporters of Texas' public research universities prepare to go another round with the governor, this time armed with data on student outcomes.

December 6, 2012

Texas Governor Rick Perry has a lot going for him in his efforts to rework higher education in his state.

His appeals, particularly around cutting the cost of degrees for the state and families and churning out graduates with more “marketable” skills, tap into an emerging vein of populist sentiment that’s fed up with tuition increases and concerned about post-graduate employment.

On top of that, over the course of almost 12 years in office, he has appointed every member of the governing boards of the state’s higher education systems, with recent appointments being particularly amenable to his brand of change. Those board members in turn have named system and campus leaders with personal ties to Perry, many of whom have backgrounds in politics themselves.

But the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education, a volunteer group of supporters for the state’s universities agitating against the kinds of changes pushed by Perry and others, have long argued that the available data do not support his criticisms. Now they have something to show to back that up.

In preparation for legislative battles that are likely to arise when the 83rd Texas Legislature convenes next month, the coalition commissioned a third-party report to look at the relative strengths of the state’s two flagship public research universities, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University – data the commission hopes will help ward off criticism and potential reforms its members view as corrosive to these institutions’ quality.

The report, which focuses primarily on the quality of entering students, student retention and graduation rates, the price of education to Texas families, degree productivity, and student success, is an attempt to shift the conversation about public higher education in Texas from the governor’s turf – focused on reducing costs to the state and families, questioning research expenditures and criticizing the flagships – to one more favorable to the institutions.

“We feel like maybe there’s not a real understanding among our leaders and in the public about what the unique mission of the public research institution is,” said Pam Willeford, a member of the coalition’s governing committee and a former member of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “There hasn’t been a lot of talk about where our institutions do well and where they need to be supported.”

Commission members are hoping the data, released today, will help bolster their case for limiting cuts in appropriations or even for potentially increasing support for the universities, and will keep lawmakers from dictating policies about what the universities should be focused on. Even if the statistics do not persuade the governor, commission members hope the information will influence state lawmakers and the general public.

Whether the data have any appreciable effect on warding off criticism or shifting the debate is still to be seen. Perry has remained adamant about seeing the changes enacted, even in the face of pushback by university faculty members and administrators and national higher education leaders. On top of that, Perry’s arguments – which have not been tested in other states – rely more on a philosophical belief that the business-like reforms he is pushing have the potential to effect changes like lower prices, taxpayer savings, increased student access, and improved workforce readiness, rather than evidence that such changes actually will have the desired result.

Texas has been referred to by many as “ground zero” of the twin trends of decreased state appropriations for higher education and increasing government intervention and accountability. It is the site of an emerging philosophy about higher education reform that is starting to be embraced by governors in other states.

Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities – an association that represents the top research universities in the U.S. and Canada, including UT-Austin and Texas A&M – has identified Perry by name as a political leader who ”does not believe in public support for public higher education, and who does not understand what an education at a research university means.”

The coalition, which launched in the summer of 2011 in response to various proposals viewed by many within and outside the academy as inimical to quality, is a group of about 400 prominent Texans, many of who are alumni of the two universities and have been involved in the state’s higher education systems.

The group has been involved in almost all the major policy proposals and disputes since then, including helping rally support for UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. when it appeared that his job might be on the line.

One of their main concerns, Willeford said, is that policy makers are viewing the state’s universities through one lens without recognizing the variety within the systems themselves. “In our own discussions it was obvious to some of us that the unique mission of these kinds of institutions was not being appreciated,” she said.

Much of the report, authored by Michael McLendon, a professor of higher education policy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas (he worked at Vanderbilt University when the coalition commissioned him to write the report), is dedicated to exploring how mission differentiation among higher education institutions in the country and Texas specifically developed.

The report also uses data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to evaluate the universities on a variety of metrics pertaining to undergraduate education. “The purpose of the report is to provide a baseline assessment of how well UT-Austin and Texas A&M perform in the realm of undergraduate education,” he said in a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

Texas higher education administrators said they expect the legislature this year to debate whether or not to increase funding to the state’s universities, whether to tie that funding to outcomes, and, if so, on what outcomes to base those decisions.

The report tries to show that on many of the metrics that other states have used – graduation rates, degree production, minority degree completion, and degree production in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines – the universities perform quite well relative to their peers, other flagship research universities, and all universities classified as “very high research activity” by the Carnegie Corporation.

Incoming student quality, as judged by test scores, is higher at both institutions than at their peers. The universities are highly selective and have some of the highest percentages of Hispanic students of any universities in the country. UT-Austin and Texas A&M University degrees are less expensive to families than are their peers and have been growing at a slower pace in recent years (though that’s not for lack of trying on the universities’ part).

The universities also rank high on outcome measures relative to their peers. On six-year graduation rates, both institutions hover right around the average of their peer groups. On four-year rates, the universities lag their peers, but both have made headlines in recent years for new efforts trying to raise those rates.

On other measures of graduate quality, such as the number of graduates who pass specific professional licensing exams and surveys of satisfaction, the universities also rank high.

Administrators from the two universities and their systems praised the report in a release issued Thursday. “This report validates what the data and many external rankings have indicated for some time — that Texas A&M University is extremely effective and efficient in serving the needs of our students and the state of Texas,” said Texas A&M University President R. Bowen Loftin.

“I was particularly pleased that the report reaffirmed the extraordinary educational and economic value that UT and A&M offer to the state and nation, as well as the dedication of university leaders, faculty and staff to continuously engage in qualitative improvement of the undergraduate experience," said Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System.

The report does not get at one of the major concerns of Texas policy makers: the cost of producing a degree, for both the state and families, which has formed the heart of Perry’s efforts, particularly his call for a $10,000 degree.

Part of the reason for not including such information, McLendon said, is that such a breakdown is hard to obtain. Given all the things institutions spend money on, variation in the programs and expenses across different institutions and the varying costs of producing different types of degrees.

One group that has tried to quantify the cost of producing a degree, the Delta Cost Project, found that Texas institutions actually stack up comparatively well to their peers in that respect, too.

In 2009, UT-Austin and Texas A&M University spent $18,003 and $16,405 per student, respectively, on education and related expenses, a category that includes spending on instruction, student services and a portion of academic and institutional support for maintenance and operations. Most schools in their peer group spent more than $22,000 per student. Part of that might be attributable to the fact that neither A&M nor UT-Austin has a medical school, which often cost more to operate on a per-student basis.

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Kevin Kiley

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