COMMENTARY by BRIAN McCALL
Members of the Texas Legislature can return home this week confident that the votes they cast during the 84th legislative session will result in a more educated, enlightened and workforce-ready Texas.
Under the leadership of House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and working in tandem with Gov. Greg Abbott, lawmakers made a firm commitment to higher education at a time when many other states are struggling to keep their colleges and universities open, accessible and affordable.
This commitment is vital because there is arguably no portion of the state budget more susceptible to the ebb and flow of the state’s economy than higher education. With no constitutional mandate to fund higher education, past legislatures have reduced college and university budgets when revenues declined. In good economic times, however, the state has been generous in supporting its higher education institutions.
Now, with a strong economy and elected leaders who recognize the incredible return on investment that public colleges and universities provide for the state, we’re positioned to address many of the long-standing challenges facing higher education.
Since 2000, Texas colleges and universities have added nearly 600,000 students — half the population of Dallas. And while many of these students are enrolled in online courses, the need for additional classrooms and labs hasn’t diminished, because scientists, engineers and health care workers — highly skilled professionals who can’t be trained online — are in high demand.
The Legislature addressed this challenge by authorizing $3.1 billion in capital construction bonds that will help institutions expand science, technology, engineering and other programs that are critical to the state’s economy and workforce. Colleges and universities will receive additional resources to build, equip and renovate facilities thanks to a $131 million infusion of cash through state’s Higher Education Fund.
The 84th Legislature also increased funding for financial aid programs by $91 million to help keep the college dream alive for thousands of Texans. Financial aid programs are a sound investment in Texas’ future because they help close the affordability gap for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend college. This is transformative not only for students who qualify for financial aid but also for the state as a whole.
To regain some of the ground lost during the recent economic recession, the Legislature increased formula funding — the largest source of revenue for public colleges and universities — by 8 percent. This new funding will allow institutions to keep pace with enrollment growth and inflation, which drives up costs for colleges and universities just as it does for families and businesses.
And while many other states have reduced funding for research, Texas has renewed its commitment to discovery and innovation. Senate Bill 632 by state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, will implement the governor’s plan to create a more diverse and vibrant economy by helping universities recruit world-renowned faculty and expand their research and commercialization efforts. The state budget also includes a $102.5 million increase in funding for the Texas Research Incentive Program and a $46 million increase in research funding for general academic institutions.
Texas takes pride in its public colleges and universities, and for good reason. Thanks to a strong economy and visionary leaders in state government, we will continue to reap the benefits of a well-funded higher education system that improves lives, enriches communities and strengthens our economy.
Texas State University System Chancellor BRIAN McCALL chaired the Calendars committee and served on the Higher Education committee during nine terms in the Texas House of Representatives. This commentary was originally published in TribTalk and is reprinted here through a news partnership between the San Marcos Mercury and the Texas Tribune.
COVER: Texas State University’s Old Main at twilight. TEXAS STATE PHOTO
TOP: Brian McCall earlier this year at a symposium in San Marcos. TEXAS TRIBUNE PHOTO