State must ensure equal help for students of Texas' private universities, colleges

March 6, 2011

Waco Tribune-Herald, Guest Column by Baylor President Ken Starr (reprinted with permission)

The Texas Legislature faces hard choices. Budget cuts are inevitable. Within the range of possibilities is the Tuition Equalization Grant program that supports many financially challenged first-generation and minority students enrolling in one of the state's educational treasures - its 40 private colleges and universities, many of which are faith-based.

This year marks the 40th that thoughtful elected officials from both parties have wisely encouraged Texas students to enter a Texas college of their choice - any college - with assurance that the neediest among them will be eligible for education-empowering grants.

In 2011, a total of 27,000 Texas students - attending each and every one of the state's 40 private colleges and universities - are being assisted by this smart-dollar investment in the future. The cumulative sum that the state provides to all these Texas students is $102 million. This figure represents a microscopic 1 percent of the state's total higher education budget.

Not only is the state's TEG investment infinitesimally small, the dollars are very efficiently spent. Fully 22 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded in Texas are from our private colleges and universities where the usual TEG award is $3,500, less than one-half the average taxpayer contribution to students enrolling at public universities in Texas.

Public institutions of higher education are vitally important to our state's well-being; they should be enthusiastically encouraged and supported. But wise and discerning state leaders will likewise understand the historic role that private higher education has played - and continues to play - in the well-being of our state. Texas has long been a land of promise and opportunity. With the state's rapidly shifting demographics, education at all levels is all the more vitally important. But not all students of promise, including ethnic minorities and first-generation students, can or should be funneled into public education. Private schools such as Baylor University, Trinity University and Abilene Christian University are essential in helping Texas close the gaps and educate our rapidly growing population - and at a lower cost to taxpayers.

I highlight these three institutions because my two fellow presidents - Phil Schubert of Abilene Christian and Dennis Ahlburg of Trinity - have recently met with legislative and executive branch leaders in Austin. The elected leaders with whom we met are men and women of good will wanting to do the right thing in economically challenging times. Not surprisingly, they also exude a great sense of optimism. Texans are a hearty people, and they're filled with optimism. Doom and gloom, slash and burn do not mark the abiding spirit of Texas.

And so it is that the Texas economy is once again rebounding, sales tax revenues are increasing, and cost-savings efficiencies are being thoughtfully identified. But it will be a grave disservice to higher education in Texas - the gateway to a productive citizenry, job creation and human flourishing - should we fail to defend adequately the profound public good created by the state's private institutions of higher learning. Those institutions are dedicated to educating Texans and adding to our intellectual capital so Texas can meet the challenges ahead in this global century.

Even with the sunny optimism that characterizes Texas at its best, including its most storied elected officials, we in higher education recognize full well that this is a time for tightening belts. Sacrifices are required and the private institutions are fully prepared to do their part. But Texas will not be the same if we say to the neediest of our high school graduates, "Go to a public institution, and the state will help you, but go to a private and you are on your own," thus turning a blind eye to a successful program that has served all Texas residents for four decades.

History will not judge well a public policy that ignores - or singles out for disproportionately harsh treatment - the cost-effective, smaller private institutions of higher education that have faithfully served Texas through its glorious history.

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