Note: This article originally appeared in The Bryan-College Station Eagle on April 28, 2012.

Today, leaders across the country and the political spectrum are calling on Americans to unite to solve the national crisis in higher education.

Ray M. Bowen and Jon Hagler addressed the issue in the context of Texas A&M (Eagle, April 21), and find fault with both the A&M regents and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. As the new director of public policy foundation’s Center for Higher Education, and as a former university professor, dean, provost and president, I welcome their participation in this critical debate.

Texas needs the participation of all our many and diverse voices — from eminences such as Bowen and Hagler, to the regents whose rightful first concern is the well-being of Texas A&M, to civil-society institutions such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation, to students, to parents, to taxpayers.

There are too many real and pressing problems in higher education, recognized by all, to exclude ideas. That exclusion would, in any case, be antithetical to the unhindered discourse that is one of the glories not just of academia, but of the American way.

The challenges of skyrocketing tuition, crushing student-loan debt and declining educational value demand more engagement from all of us — not less.

Directly engaged

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been directly engaged in the higher-education debate since 2006, championing various proposals aimed at increasing affordability, quality, transparency, and accountability in Texas higher education.

The public policy foundation has a clear track record of promoting transparent discussion of the critical issues affecting our state. We have hosted numerous public events and included speakers of varying viewpoints, such as our forum last April which featured UT-Austin President Bill Powers and Texas A&M Faculty Senate Speaker Robert Strawser.

In January, I was pleased to have state Sen. Judith Zaffirini — a frequent critic of our reforms and organization — among the discussants on my panel at our policy orientation. Make no mistake: There is a crisis in higher education. Consider these well-documented facts.

At the national level, total student-loan debt now stands at nearly $1 trillion, which is more than total credit-card debt. At A&M, student-loan debt currently averages more than $21,000 per student.

‘Not very much’

What are students getting for this crushing amount of debt? According to “Academically Adrift,” last year’s landmark national study of collegiate learning, the answer is “not very much.” Of the national sample of students it surveyed, 36 percent failed to show “any significant improvement” in “critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills)” after four full years in college.

Small wonder then, that in these tough economic times, 31 percent of recent graduates find themselves forced to move back with their parents. Of those able to land a job, the majority are making less than $30,000 a year.

All higher education institutions, including Texas A&M, owe students, parents, taxpayers, and regents external validation that they are, in fact, providing students the education they deserve. The metrics currently available for Texas A&M underscore the urgency of that mission.

At Texas A&M, the four-year graduation rate is an unremarkable 50.7 percent. Instruction of students must be made a higher priority than it has been in recent years.

As experienced professors spend more of their time on research and administrative responsibilities, a greater share of the teaching load falls on part-time lecturers and graduate students.

Graduate students

A public policy foundation analysis of the Spring 2006 Texas A&M course catalog found that nearly every section of two key freshman-level courses — English 104 and Communication 203 — were taught by graduate students.

Analyses by other organizations have found a substantial amount of the teaching and sponsored research being conducted by a small percentage of faculty. Furthermore, the reduction in students’ access to their professors has been accompanied by an unprecedented growth in tuition costs.

The average tuition at Texas public universities has increased by more than 5 percent every year since 1994, and has grown faster than Texas private university tuitions during that period. Lack of state funding cannot be the issue, as state support for Texas public universities increased by 25.3 percent between 2003 and 2009.

Over the past several decades, taxpayer support of Texas public higher education has kept pace with inflation and enrollment growth.

A number of these facts may come as no surprise to students, parents, and taxpayers, who have been suffering for some time now.

Make no mistake: Texas A&M is precisely the sort of institution where the conversation over higher education reform must be had. Aggies lead the way in so many spheres, from the corridors of power to our nation’s battlefields abroad, and should also show the path forward here. Furthermore, as the metrics show, there is demonstrable room for improvement.


These are not problems that can be solved with more money. They require thoughtful and innovative reforms of the type that forward-thinking Aggies have historically embraced.

One such solution is the $10,000 college degree being rolled out at Texas A&M-San Antonio, which I have praised in both the San Antonio Express-News and National Review Online. The reform efforts that culminated in the $10,000 degree were the direct result of vigorous discussion and debate.

Taxpayers, students, parents, regents, and the governor got the reform ball rolling through forthrightly questioning the status quo.

Such questioning, as Socrates teaches, is meant not to destroy, but to improve. In this spirit, I look forward to working with all friends of Texas A&M. Now is the time to embrace openness to new ideas, innovation, and transformative improvement for the sake of Texas’s future.

We must keep our eyes on the goals before us: transparency and accountability, better use of resources, world-class research and high-quality graduates, and reduced cost to students and taxpayers.

When we reach these goals, all Texans win. And through our victory, we will provide another shining example of the “Texas Model” to our sister states, all of which are struggling with the identical higher-education challenges.

Let us unite in the task of reform, because, as Bowen and Hagler rightly note, “our students, current and future, deserve better.”