Education Policy

Don’t Price Students Out of an Education

President Lyndon Johnson said, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” As students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, President Johnson’s commitment to accessible education holds particular significance for us. Without financial aid, including student loans, education would be inaccessible for many of us. Even those who work their way through school or have spouses who work could never afford school without state and federal financial assistance.

We’re enrolled in one of the premier state schools in the nation, in a state that appreciates and values higher education. Clearly, Texas colleges and universities must be among the state Legislature’s highest priorities, right? Apparently not. State investment in higher education has actually decreased over the past three years, and not just funding for school operations. According to a report, “State of Student Aid and Higher Education in Texas,” the state’s major financial assistance programs have been slashed.

“The funding for several of Texas’ major higher education financial aid programs was cut from the 2010-2011 biennium to the 2012-2013 biennium. Overall, the five major programs were cut 15 percent, from about $1 billion to nearly $880 million. Eight other large programs, including the Top Ten Percent Scholarship program and Developmental Education, had their funding cut between 23 percent and 94 percent.”

At the same time, enrollment is rapidly increasing. State government is expecting public colleges and universities to do more with less. And what happens when state funding is cut for higher education?

Tuition goes up. Students are being priced out of an education — not exactly the future President Johnson envisioned. Texas already ranks 49th in getting high school students into college. Financial aid is essential for many poor and minority students. And the profile of people who can’t afford a higher education without assistance is creeping up the socioeconomic ladder. More children from middle class families are joining the ranks of those left behind.

We all have a stake in keeping higher education in Texas accessible and affordable. Again from the report:

“By 2018, approximately 56 percent of jobs in Texas will require some kind of training or education beyond high school. Between 2008 and 2018, jobs requiring a postsecondary degree are projected to grow 20 percent, adding nearly 1.3 million jobs, and growing at a faster rate than jobs not requiring higher education.”

Are we prepared? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 28 percent of Texans age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2012, down slightly from 2011. Among the nation’s six most populous states, Texas is tied for last place.

What can be done? A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education proposed focusing on cutting administration costs, citing a Goldwater Institute study which found that between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent. At the same time, the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student grew by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.

Times are tough. It’s important that we find ways to reduce the costs of administration. Shouldn’t public higher education be efficient? If we don’t act now, how many potential engineers, doctors, or public servants (like us) will be lucky to land menial jobs because they lack an education?

According to recently updated findings by the Bureau of Business Research, “Every dollar the state invests in UT-Austin generates more than $18 in spending in the state’s economy.”

In 1860, John Ruskin wrote, “That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest number of noble and happy human beings.” Over 150 years later, we still struggle to realize what this means. For most Texans, the foundation of a “noble and happy” life is education. Before we reflexively cut state funding for higher education and hike tuition to make up the difference, we should remember Ruskin’s words. Investing in public higher education makes us all a bit more noble, happy and rich.

This op-ed was also published by The Austin-American Statesman

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