Prioritizing everything accomplishes nothing

As students in the UT System await the decision that will mean the fate of tuition for the next two academic years, researchers warn that tuition increases across the state are limiting the accessibility of higher education.

The Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania released a report Wednesday that indicates something Texans have known for some time: Financial aid cannot keep up with the rising cost of attendance, forcing prospective students to take out larger loans or to refrain from attending college altogether.

Some of the state’s priorities, such as creating more research institutions, are slowing progress in other more significant areas, such as college readiness and graduation rates, the report suggests.

Moreover, in an attempt to improve the state of higher education in Texas, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has turned much of its attention to the Closing the Gaps initiative, which aims to bring Texas universities to parity with those in other large states by 2015. Institute Director Joni Finney told The Texas Tribune, however, that the state may face difficulties in reaching the initiative’s objectives if it does not address the funding of community colleges and reevaluate its goal to increase the number of national research institutions.

“If Texas spreads its finite financial resources among too many priorities, however worthy, it is unlikely to get a handle on the soaring tuition that is threatening to price more and more Texans out of a college education, thus perpetuating racial and economic disparities,” according to the report.

Accessibility and quality do not have to be mutually exclusive, but without properly prioritizing them, higher education leaders cling to the illusion that the state has unlimited financial resources to fund the many goals they have or that all of those goals are attainable.

A similar illusion persists at UT. Framing the tuition discussion as though the quality of education can be maintained or even improved with either cuts to essential programs or increases in tuition implies that there is a quick fix to address the decline of higher education in Texas.

Instead, anyone with a vested interest in higher education should recognize that the problem is growing increasingly complex and that everyone from university administrators to state lawmakers needs to reassess the priorities of higher education. A poor investment in both quality and accessibility means neither can prevail.