After years of rapid growth, Texas colleges face budget crunch. Linking education to economic future, panel studies university system

The oil slump has Texas talking economic growth based on brain power rather than the earth's bounty. A commission of educators, politicians, and business leaders is expected to report to Gov. Mark White in December on steps to improve the state's higher-education system. Educators are hoping to convince the panel and the public that, despite the state's budget crunch wrought by fallen oil prices, the state's colleges and universities need more money, not less.

``If we don't excel in higher education, we won't be able to compete in the national market and our economy will not move ahead,'' says Kenneth Ashworth, the state's commissioner of higher education.

Since 1970, the Texas higher-education system has grown to 37 universities and 49 two-year college districts, from 25 four-year institutions and 41 two-year districts. During the same period state allocations for higher education increased from half-a-billion dollars a year to $3 billion. The system's flagship, the University of Texas at Austin, has been considered by many education experts to be on the verge of international renown.

The picture is changing, though.

Enrollment in the state's colleges and universities fell by 2.5 percent last year. Many in the state now feel there are too many schools duplicating too many programs. Too much of the funding growth, they say, was based on pork-barrel politics rather than genuine need or informed estimates of future growth.

The big shock came last year when the Legislature proposed a 26 percent cut in higher-education funding (which was eventually whittled to 4 percent).

Education officials note that the spending slowdown is occurring just as other public universities around the nation are receiving more money. Texas ranks 18th among the states for per capita spending on higher education.

One result is that some now see the University of Texas, and the state's other ``prestige'' institution, Texas A&M University, losing their competitive edge. Of UT's 143 endowed faculty chairs, more than half are currently vacant, with potential faculty recruits reportedly expressing apprehension about future state financial support. There is growing concern that the two schools are becoming ripe for faculty ``raiding.''

It is amid this sobering atmosphere that the 23-member higher-education commission is meeting. The commission follows by two years a similar panel that spearheaded major reform of the state's lower public-education system.

State leaders from Governor White on down say that, unlike the primary and secondary systems, higher education needs only a ``fine-tuning.'' Among the possible changes mentioned are a clearer organizational structure governing the institutions, and streamlining or merging to eliminate unneeded course offerings.

Also high on White's list are steps to increase the amount of research money funneled to Texas. Texas ranks 10th in federal research and development spending, and none of its universities places among the top 25 schools receiving federal R&D dollars.

But among state political leaders, there is little feeling that higher education in Texas will see major revenue boosts soon. State Sen. Ray Farabee, a commission member, says that while he believes the state must accept tax hikes next year, the prospects for markedly increased higher-education spending are dim.

Yet public-opinion polls show solid support for higher-education funding. And commission member Bobby Ray Inman, president of Austin's Microelectronic and Computer Technology Corporation, says he senses a general recognition in the business community that Texas, whose per capita taxation surpasses only two other states, will probably have to accept higher taxes.

He adds, however, ``Texas is a state where large numbers of people with no post-secondary education became very rich off the land. Some of these people have stated the view that education paid a very little role in their own economic success. That may be true,'' he adds, ``but will today's children have the same opportunity?''

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