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'Higher Education: Good for All of Us'

President Denise Trauth
October 04, 2011

 
Thank you for inviting me to be with you today as you close your conference. And thank you for the work you do for our higher education institutions. Let me take a moment of personal privilege to compliment our own planners at Texas State University: They do an outstanding job of integrating the planning process throughout campus, making the most of our resources and assuring that we are good stewards of those resources entrusted to us.
 
As president of Texas State University, I am proud to say that our university does planning particularly well.
We can stretch a dollar about as far as it can be stretched. We are excellent stewards of the state’s investment in us. The money that we get from the State of Texas – our funding per semester credit hour – is 33rd out of the 35 public universities in Texas. Comparing our expenditures per undergraduate to 50 peer universities across the nation, our expenditures are 51st, lower than all of them. Since 2001, we have reduced administrative costs from 13.1 to 9.3 percent. And we use our space as well as we use our funding. We are one of four universities receiving the highest possible score for classroom and lab utilization from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
 
Yet this good stewardship has not hindered our success or our appeal. Our graduation rate is the fifth highest of the 35 public universities in the state. More than 19,000 students applied for freshman admission this fall. Our enrollment continues to climb, with 34,000 students enrolled this semester.
 
That said, Texas State, like all of your institutions – in whatever state, public or private, community college or flagship university – we all face new challenges in reshaping our collective future. And our collective future is our nation’s future, for higher education was never more important than it is today. The manner in which we plan for meeting these challenges will determine, to a major extent, the future of the United States.
 
The most obvious challenge – the one we think of first – is funding. At least 35 states expect budget shortfalls in 2012, and public higher education will feel the brunt of those cuts. Thirteen states have decreased their higher education budget by more than 10 percent in the last two years. In Texas, our state funding was cut by 17percent on an annual and continuing basis.
 
And if other states are like Texas, and I suppose they are in this respect: State funding for higher education shrinks in good times as well as bad. If we have a surplus, it shrinks; if we have a shortfall, it shrinks. We cannot wait out the recession, hoping for better funding.
 
As public dollars shrink, the competition for private dollars grows. But private contributions have also been shrinking. The 400 biggest charities suffered an 11 percent drop in giving last year, the worst decline in 20 years. Charitable support for American colleges and universities declined by 8 percent between 2006 and 2010.
 
In Texas, one of the most important grant programs on which low-income students depend is the Texas Grants program. It is the vehicle that sends many first-generation students to college. As an example of the impact of the cuts in that program, the number of first-time students at Texas State who are receiving Texas Grants shrank 29 percent this fall, and their individual allocation fell 26 percent. And this in the face of a growing number of students in need.
 
Eleven states have been forced to cap the number of students matriculating at their universities this year. For instance, even while its applicant pool grew, the number of students enrolled in California’s public colleges decreased by 165,000 in the last academic year.
 
These economic hurdles present challenges, no doubt about it, but I like the attitude of the president of the organization of State Higher Education Executive Officers. Paul Lingenfelter sees the hurdles as “more sobering than defeatist.” Our fundamental challenge, he says, is “how do you do the best you can with the money you have.”
 
And, of course, money is not the only challenge. We face the changing look of the student body, the educational needs of the state, the retiring work force, the lightning speed of technological change, and the need to find a place for for-profit colleges in the higher education landscape.
 
The only truism about the average college student is that there is no average college student. Forty percent of undergraduates go to community colleges, 40 percent are part-timers, a third are older than 24. In Texas, half of all college students are ethnic minorities. But that’s good news because Texas is a minority majority state.
 
And a somewhat new situation: For at least the last 10 years, 57 percent of the enrollments in American colleges have been women. Researchers point to several reasons for this – women tend to have higher grades; men drop out in disproportional numbers; female enrollments are higher among older students, lower-income students, African-American and Hispanic students. This presents a challenge of attracting more men into college.An ongoing challenge felt particularly, I think, by public institutions is the responsibility of meeting the changing workforce needs of the state. In the case of schools like Texas State, Florida State and Arizona State, we were founded to meet a workforce need, the need for trained teachers. We still do that, but we do much more. During the last decade, Texas State has begun degree programs in electrical engineering, nursing, math education, geographic information systems, and water resources to meet more recent needs.

The last challenge I will mention is the need to re-envision higher education as a public good. It is more than a little ironic in this time when the necessity for a highly educated workforce is so obvious and so overwhelming that we do not see higher education as a public good.

We focus, as a society and a government, on the individual benefit rather than the public good. “You will earn more with a college degree, therefore, you should pay for getting it” seems to be the attitude. But how can we ignore now what we used to take for granted: that higher education is good for the nation’s economy, the nation’s health and to our very democracy. Citizens who make more money – and college graduates do -- pay more taxes. A higher median income of cities gives them a better bond rating and makes them more attractive to business and industry. The more educated take better care of themselves physically; they die later in life; they smoke less. They don’t go to prison. They vote in greater numbers. How can it not be a public good?

Some of our nation’s major steps in opening doors of higher education, however, have come in times of crisis. The first, the Morrill Act of the 1860s that built our land-grant colleges, was born in the midst of the Civil War. The idea of the G.I. Bill that drew veterans to college came out of World War II. The Higher Education Act of 1965 that opened colleges to lower income students sprang from the upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe this current fiscal crisis can lead to another major step forward, but to do so, we must see higher education as a public good.
Perhaps we can begin that major step by taking advantage of some of the opportunities that these challenges I mentioned present to us.

Among those opportunities are expanded partnerships with business and the community. Texas State broke ground on a good example of a partnership only last month. It is a Center for Research Commercialization, the beginning of a research park near I-35 that will serve as an incubator for new and early-stage small businesses. Our partners in it are the city of San Marcos and other cities in the region, state government and major industries.

Partners can also be other colleges and universities, combining our resources because we can often accomplish more together than separately. The Alamo University Center in San Antonio is a good example. St. Mary’s, Incarnate Word, Wayland Baptist, Alamo Colleges, Texas A&M-San Antonio and Texas State – public and private colleges – joined one another to serve the educational needs of northeast San Antonio.

Another example is multi-institutional teaching centers. Texas State’s campus in Round Rock started out as a cooperative campus with other colleges, particularly Austin Community College. Such centers circumvent many of the administrative and student support expenses of separate schools. The Round Rock effort has quickly grown into separate and additional campuses for both Texas State and Austin Community College.

The best example of institutional cooperation I can think of, in Texas at least, is the state’s Closing the Gaps initiative. The plan was a 15-year template, one of whose goals was to get 630,000 more students into college by the year 2015. It has involved every college and university in the state and is progressing well toward its goals.

Globalization is another opportunity. The world is shrinking, as we all know. The “butterfly effect” has never been more pronounced. Citizens of the world are affected by one another’s environmental and economic issues. Instant communication can start revolutions and topple dictators. A banking crisis in Greece affects stock markets worldwide. We have opportunities – and motivation – like never before to collaborate with other countries.

But I believe that the greatest opportunity presented to us by our challenges is the chance to re-imagine ourselves. And that leads me to my first prediction. I was asked to give you my prognosis for higher education, and I would like to leave you with three thoughts.

The first is that colleges that take the opportunity to re-imagine themselves will be less traditional, more innovative, and, well, different.

Interdisciplinary courses with cross-cultural and global facets will be the norm. Instruction will increasingly be centered on issues and ideas rather than separate professional areas. An example is Texas State’s doctoral program in aquatic resources. The water issue has geographical and biological aspects, of course, but it also has educational, economic, agricultural, and historical aspects.

We also have an exciting new doctorate on the horizon in materials science, engineering and commercialization. The program combines the discovery of new materials with the application and distribution of them. It’s one thing to invent a new material, but it’s also important to get the maximum use from it. For instance, if a new material is invented to make airplanes stronger, is there a use for it in cell phones or mechanical hearts or high-rise construction? How do we get the material on the market?

Re-imagined universities will have changes in administrative structures – and as a president, this doesn’t scare me! Perhaps combined oversight of groups of colleges, administration that is less “tall” and more “broad.”

Transfer from institution to institution will be smoother to accommodate our mobile society. Distance learning will be further incorporated, as will technology of every sort. 

And public demand for accountability will be a driving force behind this re-imagining. Those colleges and universities that embrace accountability, rather than hide from it, will be the leaders in higher education.

The second thought is quite predictable: Tough decisions are ahead of us. Budget decisions spring to mind first. What do we fund and what do we not? How can we make the most of the money given us?

But there are other tough decisions. Decisions about the balance between distance and classroom instruction, the role of technology, the place for research and the kinds of research. How to keep the doors of higher education open to anyone who wants it. How to best use our campuses.

Use of campus is particularly on my mind because of our Campus Master Plan process of the last few years at Texas State. We went into the process knowing that enrollment was going to skyrocket, so our assumption was that we’d need more space, more land for expansion. Our planners guided us into another thought process: “You don’t need more space,” they said. “Let’s figure out together how we can better use what we have.”

And the last thought I want to leave you with is this: The best thing on our horizon is students. Walking down the Quad at Texas State is always a treat for me. Crowds of young people, many tattooed and pierced, most plugged into something, an iPod or an iPad, texting like crazy. But make no mistake: They are smart, incredibly creative, unbelievably energetic and motivated.

They want to be part of a community. Ninety-five percent of our freshmen live on campus at Texas State. They want the communal college experience. We could house on campus many more students if we had the residence halls for them. They seek community in support groups and campus organizations.

They want to be held to high expectations, and they know that they are lifelong learners. They are reason to be optimistic about our society’s future. We must make higher education work for them.

One of the keys for making higher education work for all of us is those of you in this room. Planning will be paramount. No pressure intended, but the future of American higher education is in your court.

Thank you and best wishes.