In January 2017, the state’s elected lawmakers will gather in Austin for the next legislative session, and higher education issues will be on the agenda. We asked the four legislators who represent UTA’s campus at the State Capitol—Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville; Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills; Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington; and Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington—what key higher education issues will face lawmakers and why higher education is fundamental to the state’s future.
Senator Konni Burton
Texas State Senate: District 10
What are the most important issues facing higher education in Texas?
Sen. Burton It used to be that students paid for college tuition by taking a summer job. Those days are long gone. According to The College Board, the cost of higher education (tuition and fees, as well as room and board) has increased roughly 250 percent since 1975 in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the last 10 years alone, these costs have gone up a third. The cost trends have made college unaffordable for many students. I believe the legislature has a role in ensuring that our institutions of higher learning are effective stewards of our tax dollars and provide a quality education that is within the reach of most students. Our public institutions must be affordable to the public. I further believe the legislature should step in and contain inflation in tuition—it is the only way to control spiraling costs. UT System Chancellor William McRaven indicated his willingness to take a “hard look” at the growth of administrative staffing. Given that many of the costs to educate students are relatively stable for universities, it seems likely that the growth in staff could account for a decrease in affordability. I believe students should make a fully informed decision when it comes to borrowing for college. One idea being considered is to inform students of the earning potential of their preferred degree as well as the cost to obtain it. Furthermore, controlling costs at universities is the prerequisite to handling this issue in the long term.
Sen. Hancock As Texas continues to press for Tier One institutions, the top priority of colleges and universities should be providing an exceptional education for the students on their campuses. Equipping students with the knowledge and skills they need for future success is key. Though research is extremely important in higher education, universities should focus on hiring teachers who perform top-notch research, rather than researchers who simply fill a classroom. Classroom instruction should never be an afterthought.
Representative Tony Tinderholt
Texas House of Representatives: District 94
Rep. Tinderholt Obviously the fact that the cost of higher education is increasing so rapidly is a major issue. We need to figure out a way to control those costs. Another issue is the Hazelwood Act [a State of Texas benefit that provides qualified veterans, spouses, and dependent children with an education benefit of up to 150 hours of tuition exemption, including most fee charges, at public institutions of higher education in Texas]. My fear is if we don't do something with Hazelwood, the cost is going to get out of control. It's an unfunded mandate, and we need to do some fixes that make sure Hazelwood is a long-term solution for military and prior military people. If we don't fix it, we're going to lose it.
Also, some colleges are stepping all over people's First Amendment rights. These are institutions of higher education, not institutes of political indoctrination. Some campuses across the state, like UTA, have embraced the sprit of the Campus Carry law while others are interpreting it in a way that suits their own political agendas. I think that will probably come up next session as well.
Rep. Turner We're asking higher education to prepare our future workforce for a rapidly changing global economy. Specifically in Texas, the state has adopted the 60x30TX plan, calling for 60 percent of young adult Texans to have a college degree by 2030. Today that number is around 37-38 percent, so we have a long way to go to get there.
The last session in 2015 was a good session for higher education overall; funding was increased, and we passed a long-overdue tuition revenue bond (TRB) bill, which UTA is seeing the benefit of in the form of $70 million in TRBs for the new Science and Engineering Innovation and Research building. We know that's not enough. The state's share of funding for higher ed over the last few decades has consistently and steadily declined. We're telling them to hold the line on tuition and fees, so they're in a challenging situation. But I have confidence that institutions like UTA are going to continue to lead the way in innovation, showing how things can be done more efficiently and effectively and managing scarce resources well to provide the best education possible to a growing number of students.
Why do you support higher education? Why is it important to the state and local economy?
Sen. Burton Education provides a core function of government to our citizens, enabling them to create or find gainful employment for themselves. Education is the great equalizer—it allows all of our young people a shot at the American dream. We must ensure that we are equipping our young people with the skills and general knowledge they need to compete in the global economy. We must also ensure that the funds appropriated by the Texas Legislature and paid by Texans as tuition are getting the desired results. That means controlling costs, sticking to the basics, and allowing every student to succeed to the best of his or her ability. Lastly, our public institutions of higher learning also provide invaluable research and development of new ideas and technology—a major facilitator of economic growth potential.
Senator Kelly Hancock
R-North Richland Hills
Texas State Senate: District 9
Sen. Hancock Like many Texans, our family takes higher education personally. Two of our children have graduated from higher education institutions within Texas, and the third is currently in college. We are proud of our children's accomplishments, and we realize the excellent educations they received played a key role in preparing them for good careers.
That same principle translates to our state as a whole. We must continue training the next generation of young leaders so they are equipped to reach their full potential. Texas has experienced unique economic success in recent years. With a well-trained, innovative workforce, the next generation of business and community leaders can keep our economy headed in the right direction for years to come.
Rep. Tinderholt Higher education is really very important. Look at UTA for example, with the number of jobs it creates in the local community and the economic impact it has in North Texas—and every college across the state. People are buying more houses, they're spending more, there's more tax revenue coming in. That's a by-product of more revenue coming in. They are training people for the future of our communities, our state, and our nation. One example is that the nursing curriculum at UTA is absolutely phenomenal. I was recently able to see that program and its impact, how we have a shortage of nurses, and they're able to fill these positions. They're impacting the economy in our communities and they're able to impact the workforce directly by providing qualified people who are trained to do the jobs they set out to do.
Representative Chris Turner
Texas House of Representatives: District 101
Rep. Turner Higher education should strategically be a top priority for the state of Texas because education is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter who you are, where you came from, what zip code you live in, how big your parents' bank account is—if you're willing to work hard and make sacrifices, you can have the opportunity to get an education, which opens up new doors, new pathways and helps you live the life you want to live and do the things you want to do. To me, that's just a fundamental part of the American dream. Education is the single most important factor in helping people achieve their goals. As a society, a nation, and a state, we have a vested interest in providing that opportunity to all Texans—not just those who can afford it, but all those willing to work hard.
Illustrations by Kyle Hilton