By Melissa Ludwig
Gene Powell, a San Antonio businessman who chairs the University of Texas System Board of Regents, would like to reduce tuition by about 50 percent across system institutions, including UTSA, according to an April 7 memo obtained by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle.
Powell also suggests increasing enrollment at UT-Austin by 10 percent per year beginning in 2013, and by an unspecified figure at all other campuses.
Other goals include making UT-Austin the best public university in the nation and creating a timeline for UT’s four emerging research universities, including the University of Texas at San Antonio, to reach Tier One status.
Likely prompted by Gov. Rick Perry‘s challenge to create a $10,000 degree, the memo also suggests creating a “low-cost, high-quality” degree, an idea Powell put forth earlier in a March email to system institutions.
“Austin delivers a great Cadillac and needs to continue to do so as our flagship,” Powell wrote in the email. “For tens of thousands of students … we need to offer within the System an excellent no frills, low-cost undergraduate degree — or what I referred to as the basic Bel Air.”
The document didn’t give details on how the goals might be accomplished.
Anthony de Bruyn, a spokesman for the UT System, called it “an internal, draft working document” that was shared for discussion purposes only with the vice chairmen of the board and a few UT System executive staff.
“Increasing enrollment at UT-Austin by 10 percent annually while reducing tuition by 50 percent flies in the face of making our flagship the ‘No. 1 public university in the U.S.’ In fact, the two goals clearly are mutually exclusive,” Zaffirini said.
Zaffirini also chided Powell for whipping up controversy since taking over the chairmanship in February.
“He has caused a firestorm of negativity that is detrimental to UT-Austin, to the system, to higher education in general — and to his relationship with legislators,” she said.
In a statement Tuesday, Powell said long conversations with Zaffirini have convinced him they share common goals, including improving access to affordable education, pursuing innovative research and enhancing UT-Austin’s reputation.
“The discussion about how the UT System continues to evolve … will clearly continue to stimulate debate,” Powell said. “I believe this debate is worthy and healthy. As in any university setting — all points of view are welcome and respected.”
State Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas Republican and chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said that while he agrees that UT-Austin ought to be tops in the nation, he’s concerned quality will suffer if tuition revenue drops dramatically while enrollment rises.
“I think we all want to see access increase … but I am not sure (our flagships) are the places to start,” Branch said.
State Rep. Joaquín Castro, a San Antonio Democrat and vice chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said Powell’s goals aren’t possible without more state financial support.
“Having known Gene Powell for several years now, I know that his passion for higher education and the UT System is sincere,” Castro said. “However, the infrastructure and personnel costs required to (increase enrollment) are more than the governor and Republican legislature are willing to commit.”
Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, issued this statement:
“We are pleased to see university leadership opening discussions to find innovative ways to keep college education affordable, while making our universities some of the most competitive and prestigious among the nation.”
Justin Keener, spokesman for Texas Business for Higher Education, a recently formed business group that wants to see college costs cut and quality raised, also applauded Powell’s effort.
“Striving to be the best in the nation and serving more students are noble goals. It is the responsibility of the regents to ask these questions and set high goals; it is the job Texans expect them to perform,” Keener said. “Too many academically qualified Texans are denied a college education because of the high cost or enrollment caps.”
More aid, more access
David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in Boulder, Colo., said he doesn’t believe the goal is aimed at increasing access.
Demand for higher education in Texas is strong and growing, and most economists believe tuition rates actually are lower than the market can bear, Longanecker said.
Economic studies show that expanding financial aid, not reducing tuition, is the best way to improve access for low-income students.
Universities have lots of fixed costs and employment contracts they cannot break. Dramatically reducing tuition revenue over a short time would force them to cut class sections and drop degrees and programs, he said.
“If you are just going to take it out of the hide, that is a pretty substantial reduction in revenue per student, particularly at a time when the state’s revenues are also declining,” Longanecker said.
Longanecker said the real goal is likely squeezing more productivity out of universities, which most policy experts and college presidents agree needs to happen. With no new money on the horizon, universities must graduate more students with higher-quality degrees in less time.
“Tuition is sort of the symptom rather than the disease,” Matthews said. “You have to look under the hood and make fundamental changes in the way we do business. Those are not easy. Those are not marginal tweaks.”
Houston Chronicle Staff Writer Patricia Kilday Hart contributed to this report.