Texas Higher Education Must Confront Hard Choices, UPenn Study Finds

Texas will be forced to put the state’s economic growth at stake by

closing the doors to college opportunity for thousands of young people,

many of them Latino, unless leaders prioritize their goals for higher

education and develop a plan to pay for them, according to a new report

released by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute

for Higher Education Research.

Through its strategic plan, Closing the Gaps, Texas has garnered broad

public support for a set of statewide goals for higher education:

increasing college enrollment, raising the number of degrees awarded,

pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national

rankings, and luring more federal research dollars.

But the admirable goals Texas has set for itself are not compatible,

particularly in tough economic times, Laura Perna and Joni Finney of

Penn’s Graduate School of Education write in “Hard Choices Ahead:

Performance and Policy in Texas Higher Education,” the fourth report of

a five-state study.

Worrisomely, Texas ranks 39th among states in the share of adults ages

25 and older who have earned at least an associate degree, at 32%, Perna

and Finney find. Yet as soon as 2018, according to projections, 56% of

all jobs in Texas will require some kind of postsecondary education or


Texas higher education falls below the national average on most measures

of college readiness, enrollment and graduation rates, and below the

best-performing states on all of them, the researchers say. Moreover,

huge inequities persist in Texas higher education. For example, among

younger adults ages 25-34, 43% of whites hold at least an associate

degree, compared to 28% of blacks and only 15% of Hispanics.

Recognizing the need to improve college readiness, Texas has made great

strides in designing and evaluating high school courses and tests to

make sure they teach the skills students need to succeed in college.

This development holds great promise, Perna and Finney write.

But soaring tuitions also stand in the way of a college education for

many Texans. Texas was once known as a state where low financial aid was

offset by low tuition. Now the low tuition is gone, leaving only low

financial aid. In 2009, students at Texas’s public universities were

paying 72% more than they were just six years earlier.

Moreover, the state’s ambitious goal to expand seven emerging research

universities reveals little understanding of the serious policy

tradeoffs that must be considered if Texas is to achieve significantly

higher levels of educational attainment, Perna and Finney say. Boosting

research and prestige at public universities is an expensive undertaking

that will take funds away from the state’s efforts to increase college

enrollment and produce more graduates ready for tomorrow’s jobs.

“The future of economic and social mobility in Texas depends on the

difficult choices that lie ahead for higher education,” Perna and Finney

write. “Are Texas’s state leaders prepared to make them?”

Other states in the study are Illinois, Georgia, Maryland and

Washington. The full report is available at: www.gse.upenn.edu/irhe/srp/texas

About the Institute

The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), headquartered at

the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, conducts

research relevant to policymakers and educational practitioners. For the

past three years, under the leadership of its new director, Joni Finney,

IRHE has collaborated with the National Center for Public Policy and

Higher Education to complete a five-state policy review, the State

Review Project, to determine the relationship between public policy and

state performance in higher education.