This commentary, written by Dr. Tom Lindsay and Richard Vedder, originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on May 25, 2016.
Recently, higher education officials gathered in Austin to herald a new report from something called the Lincoln Project that suggested public funding for higher education was woefully deficient. University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves said university funding is "getting to a critical stage."
Yet the facts suggest otherwise. It is true, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordination Board, that in the first decade of this century Texas state funding declined by 15.9 percent – yet tuition fees rose nearly five times as fast, 75 percent, so total revenues from major revenue sources increased steadily.
The State Higher Education Executive Officers and Illinois State University annually assess appropriations. From 2011 to 2016, the state of Texas increased its fiscal support for education a healthy 18.3 percent – well above the national average of 11.6 percent. Looking just at the current year, appropriations are up a robust 8.7 percent, more than double the average boost nationwide.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sought to clarify the issue in these pages ("Let's put brakes on Texas' soaring college tuition," May 8, Page B13): In the 2015 session, the Legislature acted by "increasing funding by nearly $300 million (approximately 9 percent) and authorizing over $3 billion for campus buildings.
"Yet within months of this increase, most public universities once again approved tuition increases."
But this generosity does not impress the Lincoln Project's co-chair, Robert Birgeneau, who opines, "Tuition cannot go up indefinitely at rapid rates." Birgeneau implies that faltering state appropriations are forcing an explosion in tuition fees.
Yet a new study from the Pell Institute confirms that rising tuition fees have little to do with stagnant state appropriations. From 1974-75 to 2012-13, tuition fees nationwide rose 138 percent in constant dollars at public four-year universities receiving state appropriations and nearly the same – 131 percent – at private universities getting little or no appropriations.
Blaming rising tuition fees on stagnant appropriations is simply disguising the real problem: hugely rising university costs, manifested in burgeoning armies of highly paid university administrators, luxurious facilities that are costly to maintain, and low teaching loads for faculty. If quality of instruction were improving dramatically, fee increases might be justified. But the evidence does not support that conclusion.
Nationally, students spend just 27 hours weekly on academics, compared with 40 hours in the middle of the last century – but they earn much higher grades because of grade inflation. At UT, the school has abandoned giving and reporting results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment – the results apparently were too embarrassing.
The Washington Post reported in 2012 that UT-Austin scores in the lowest quartile on the CLA compared to peer institutions. (The CLA measures how much students actually learn in college – their critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and writing skills – from the first though fourth year.)
Texas universities are not starving for funds. Looking at U.S. Department of Education data, per-student spending at both UT-Austin and Texas A&M are well above those at the flagship University of Oklahoma, and even farther above some schools that score higher in natational rankings (e.g., the University of Illinois).
Moreover, Texas public universities have a huge advantage over other states: They have a massive and constitutionally protected endowment. According to the NACUBO 2015 endowment survey, UT's endowment of more than $24 billion was the nation's third-largest, and Texas A&M's of more than $10 billion was the seventh-largest. In UT's case, the endowment was more than double that of any state school outside Texas. If UT used just half its endowment to lower tuition at the Austin campus and had a conservative 4 percent payout on endowment funds, it still could lower tuition to nearly zero – or easily cut it in half and still have large amounts for other uses.
Are Texans getting extraordinary quality for their investment? U.S. News and Forbes use quite different approaches to assessing quality, but both agree on the top six public universities – and none are in Texas. U.S. News ranks UT-Austin tied for 16th among public universities, while Forbes places it 10th – below flagship schools in much smaller states such as Virginia, Michigan, North Carolina, Illinois, Wisconsin and Washington.
When we look at all the facts, we find that Texas students are paying too much and learning too little. This is the real crisis facing higher education.
Lindsay is director of the Center for Higher Education and the Center for 10th Amendment Action at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Vedder is director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.