A lack of coordination

The state’s critiquer-in-chief, the Sunset Advisory Commission, issued its verdict on the state’s chief higher education overseer — and the results weren’t pretty.

Late last month, the commission issued a report that skewered the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for its institutionalized mismanagement and isolated approach to policy decisions.

In one key example of the board’s lack of transparency, non-members may not speak at a meeting without first formally requesting permission before the meeting itself — thereby relying on the “savvy” of the general public to navigate the board’s bureaucracy simply to voice their opinions. Even worse, the commission found that “fear of retaliation” prevented many of the board’s naysayers from bothering to engage in the cumbersome process.

In his response to the report, board commissioner Raymund Paredes, writing on behalf of the entire board, agreed with the characterization that the board’s limited input “hinder[s] its ability” to successfully promote Texas higher education.

The inclusion of the public in the board’s meetings will, according to Paredes, begin this month — though there are lingering questions as to why a government report was necessary to change the policy at all.

The commission’s review also scrutinized the board’s near-obsessive focus on Closing the Gaps — a board program that aims to bring Texas universities to parity with those in other large states — as a paradoxical commitment that “impedes … strategic management of its own operations.” By adopting Closing the Gaps as its defining mantra, the board was able to simultaneously pontificate about the value of a college degree while leaving college students out to dry.

The board came under scrutiny in December for making a jarring miscalculation in TEXAS Grant allocations, leaving UT students who rely on the scholarship $3.2 million short, collectively. Now, the board is under renewed scrutiny for the deficiencies of its B-On-Time loan program. The program, which provides a forgivable loan for qualifying students who graduate within four years, has a 22-percent default rate, which is twice that of the federal student loan default rate in Texas.

One of the implicit goals of B-On-Time, along with one of the goals of Closing the Gaps, is to increase the four-year graduation rate of the state’s universities. The focus on pushing students in and out of the college pipeline has found support in key leaders from state legislators to UT itself.

Organizations such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board exist because of an overarching goal to unite differing groups under the banner of advancing higher education and, as the commission concluded, should be preserved. But one of the fundamental problems of the board is its worrisome abdication of that mission. Texas legislators rely on the board for leadership; universities rely on the board for its guidelines; and, most importantly, students rely on the board for guardianship of their education.