Texas running low on college educated workers

Bobby Blanchard

If Texas wants to produce enough college certified workers to fill the job market, the state will have to rethink its plan regarding higher education.

According to a study co-authored by Joni Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research in Higher Education, 56 percent of jobs in Texas will require postsecondary training by 2018. However, Finney said currently 35 percent of adults over the age of 25 in Texas have an associate degree or higher.

The Texas Legislature’s plan to expand the number of research universities by seven isn’t without its drawbacks, Finney said

“If it does that, it is going to hurt the existing research universities because they don’t have the financing to do that, nor have they put in place a plan to do that,” Finney said. “The most important thing is to not spread the funding around so much that you diminish quality.”

Finney said the financial aid available for students in Texas has dropped in recent years despite increases in tuition.

According to her study, students in 2009 were paying 72 percent more for tuition than they were six years earlier.

UT director of financial services Tom Melecki said there have been several federal and state financial aid programs that have been either eliminated or cut back in the past year. Melecki said federal funding from 2010-2011 to 2011-2012 for financial aid at UT has dropped more than $5.2 million.

“The big reduction that we suffered was called the Texas Grant program, a state grant program for financially needy students who are Texas residents,” Melecki said. “We lost a little over $9 million from that program from 2010-2011 to 2011-2012.”

Melecki said in response to state and federal budget cuts, more students have been relying heavily on government loans.

“We do have some problems with students from low income families that are particularly nervous [about] taking on debt,” Melecki said. “We try to point out to students that the quality of a UT education should give them a certain peace of mind about borrowing to attend the University.”

Finney also said Texas needs to address the lack of funding for community colleges. According to her study, state appropriations for community colleges fell from 61 percent in 1985 to 28 percent in 2007, despite an increase in enrollment.

“The big problem is Texas hasn’t started that debate,” Finney said. “Those are the institutions that will observe most of this growth, and they have a combination of state and local taxes and tuition revenue. I think Texas needs to take a long hard look at community college finance and make some changes.”

Austin Community College, from which UT received 428 transfer students in the fall of 2011, is facing these issues with state appropriations, said Neil Vickers, associate vice president of finance and budget at ACC.

Vickers said for the past two-and-a-half years, ACC has grown by enrollment at 10-12 percent each year, which is a 34.59 percent increase since 2007.

“In terms of the state funding, it has not stayed with the enrollment growth,” Vickers said. “That basically means the amount of money per student is declining.”

Vickers said in the year 2000, state funds made up over 40 percent of ACC’s funding. This year, the state will contribute less than 20 percent of ACC’s funding, he said.

“If you look over time, it’s more dramatic over how the state has not been able to keep up with the growth of college,” Vickers said. “It basically forces tuition to go up just to maintain current services, and that’s before we even talk about the ability to grow or add services.”

In response to the decrease in state appropriations, Vickers said the college had to increase tuition and fees by about 25 percent from fall of 2011 to fall of 2012.

“It was what was needed to just offset the state budget cuts,” he said. “It didn’t even go towards giving us any new dollars to expand or deal with the enrollment growth that we’ve been seeing in the prior years.”

Finney said if these issues are not resolved, it could hurt the economy of Texas.

“If you don’t have good public schools and good colleges and good universities, I think there is less incentive for companies to invest in the state,” she said. “There will be a hard time getting those jobs filled.

Finney said Texas had a broad consensus on their plan for dealing with higher education, but should reassess the need to increase the number of research universities.

“They need to revisit it in terms of finance and get a little bit more realistic and say how are we going to get this done,” Finney said. “Setting the goals and gaining consensus is important, but it’s not enough, it’s only the first step.” 

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Texas needs post college workers