Powers calls for successor to focus on balancing affordability, accessibility

Josh Willis

As President William Powers Jr. prepares to step down from office, he said he hopes affordability and accessibility remain priorities for the new administration.

Powers said although he has worked to keep cost and access primary focal points during his presidency, there is still work for the next UT president — likely Gregory Fenves, executive vice president and provost, who was recently named the sole finalist for the position.

“We’re always looking for ways [to be] more productive,” Powers said. “It’s not just reducing cost; it’s the relationship between cost and output.”

Improved four-year graduation rates have helped reduce the burden on students and their families who can now pay less in tuition, Powers said.

“There’s a lot of discussion and, rightly so, about affordability and the resources that a family has to devote to public higher education,” Powers said. “We’re sensitive to that.” 

An accountability report UT produced found that between 2000 and 2014, the four-year graduation rate improved by roughly 15 percent.

The use of scholarship money is another valuable tool in taking on the cost of education for students, Powers said.

“One way [to improve affordability] is scholarship money. We’ve raised a lot of it. We use a lot of it,” Powers said. “A quarter of our students don’t pay any tuition. The average student pays about half the full sticker price because of the grants and tuition they get or financial aid they get.”

Undergraduate studies freshman Kayla Potter said that although affordability has not been an issue for her personally, she believes high out-of-state tuition makes attracting talented, non-Texas students challenging.

“I think in-state tuition isn’t ridiculous,” Potter said. “Out-of-state tuition has stopped a lot of my friends from places like California because the tuition is so high.”

Powers said there is not one single answer for making higher education affordable while maintaining a national reputation for quality.

“We want the education to improve — undergraduate curriculum, better advising, better undergraduate studies — and to be a good value for the inputs that we’re putting into it,” Powers said. “There’s no single bullet. We just always keep trying to do it as efficiently and as high quality as you can.”

 UT System Chancellor William McRaven said he shared Powers’ concern regarding affordability and accessibility at a press conference in March.

“A lot of [concern] is about affordability and access in terms of how do we ensure that we get more students in our system writ large across the UT System, make it affordable to them [and] make sure that good education is accessible,” McRaven said.

It is dangerous for UT System institutions to swing too far in either direction with regards to affordability versus the quality of education, McRaven said.

“This is a balancing act — to make education as affordable as can be but still as high quality as it can be,” McRaven said. “Frankly, the students that are looking for a high-quality education, if they don’t think that we’re giving them a high enough quality education, they will go outside the state.”

The UT System Board of Regents is expected to name Fenves as the next president Monday, after he was selected as the sole finalist in late March.