'Apocalyptic' Budget Plan Sends Waves of Fear Across Texas Higher Education

January 19, 2011

Texas higher-education officials were reeling on Wednesday after lawmakers released a preliminary budget proposal that would slash financial aid, close four two-year colleges, and eliminate programs aimed at meeting the needs of the state's growing Hispanic population.

Republican lawmakers in the House, who have gained a stronger majority since November's elections, have vowed to plug a state deficit estimated at up to $27-billion over the coming biennium without raising taxes or tapping into the state's $9.4-billion rainy-day fund.

The Texas Senate is expected to unveil its spending plan next week. But the House's preliminary plan, which provides a stark outlook compared with the relatively healthy financial picture painted just a few years ago, gave colleges here plenty to worry about.

Under the House's plan for the next two-year budget cycle, Texas colleges and universities would lose $772-million, or 7.6 percent of their state funds. The cuts would include nearly $100-million each for the flagship campuses of Texas A&M University and the University of Texas.

The state's student-aid programs would take some of the biggest hits.

No new applicants would be accepted for the state's largest financial-aid program for low-income students, the Texas Grant program. It served 87,000 students this year with grants of up to $6,780 per year, but it would serve only 27,000 students in 2013 under the House plan.

Joseph P. Pettibon, associate vice president for academic services at Texas A&M, said he worried that low-income students either would not be able to attend four-year colleges or would take on too much debt if lawmakers approved the proposed cuts.

Financial-aid offers are usually made in mid- to late March, but the state budget process probably won't be completed until the summer, when the governor signs the legislation. "What do we tell students in the meantime?" Mr. Pettibon asked.

The proposed budget would also eliminate several other programs, including adult basic education and college-readiness efforts, that the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board has been using to try to increase the number of Hispanic students attending and graduating from Texas colleges.

'Very Puzzled and Very Concerned'

Funds for Texas's community and junior colleges, which currently enroll more than 70 percent of the state's college freshmen, would be slashed by nearly $145-million over the next two-year budget cycle, under the proposed spending plan.

Of that, $39-million would come from closing four two-year colleges that, combined, serve 12,000 students: Brazosport College, in Lake Jackson; Frank Phillips College, in Borger; Odessa College; and Ranger College.

Millicent M. Valek, president of Brazosport College, said she was "very puzzled and very concerned" by the proposal. "We support major industries, including the petrochemical industry, in this area, and it doesn't make sense from an economic-development point of view," she said. The college's enrollment of about 4,200 students is an all-time high, she added.

William J. Campion, president of Ranger College, said he began receiving calls at his home before 7 a.m. on Wednesday from people wondering whether the 85-year-old college was closing. "For many people in this area of rural north-central Texas, we're the only affordable postsecondary option," he said, adding that enrollment had grown 67 percent from 2009 to 2010. Even if the idea of closing colleges was an example of "apocalyptic gamesmanship" by lawmakers, he said, the proposal will make it hard for him to recruit faculty members.

Richard Rhodes, chair of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, lambasted lawmakers for failing to provide additional money for the state's rapidly growing two-year colleges. He said, in a written statement, that the proposed budget "seriously reduces our ability to meet the needs of our local communities."

On Tuesday a coalition of conservative Texas lawmakers released its own budget-cutting recommendations, which provide another glimpse at the steep cuts colleges here are likely to face. They include a 30-percent reduction in the central administration of each higher-education system and a 60-percent cut in discretionary higher-education spending, including a wide range of scholarship and loan programs.

The group would impose a 10-percent pay cut for all state employees, including those in higher education, and no state money would be provided for salaries of professors who are exempt from teaching because of their research requirements.