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Texas Higher Education Must Confront Hard Choices, Penn Study Finds

CONTACT: Kat Stein at 215-898-9642 or

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — Texas will be forced to put the state’s economic growth at stake by closing the doors to college opportunity for thousands of young people, many of them Latino, unless leaders prioritize their goals for higher education and develop a plan to pay for them, according to a new report released by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education.

Through its strategic plan, Closing the Gaps, Texas has garnered broad public support for a set of statewide goals for higher education: increasing college enrollment, raising the number of degrees awarded, pushing the state’s colleges and universities up in the national rankings, and luring more federal research dollars.

But the admirable goals Texas has set for itself are not compatible, particularly in tough economic times, Laura Perna and Joni Finney of Penn’s Graduate School of Education write in “Hard Choices Ahead: Performance and Policy in Texas Higher Education,” the fourth report of a multi-state study.

Worrisomely, Texas ranks 39th among states in the share of adults ages 25 and older who have earned at least an associate degree, at 32%, Perna and Finney find. Yet as soon as 2018, according to projections, 56% of all jobs in Texas will require some kind of postsecondary education or training.

Texas higher education falls below the national average on most measures of college readiness, enrollment and graduation rates, and below the best-performing states on all of them, the researchers say. Moreover, huge inequities persist in Texas higher education. For example, among younger adults ages 25-34, 43% of whites hold at least an associate degree, compared to 28% of blacks and only 15% of Hispanics.

Recognizing the need to improve college readiness, Texas has made great strides in designing and evaluating high school courses and tests to make sure they teach the skills students need to succeed in college. This development holds great promise, Perna and Finney write.

But soaring tuitions also stand in the way of a college education for many Texans. Texas was once known as a state where low financial aid was offset by low tuition. Now the low tuition is gone, leaving only low financial aid. In 2009, students at Texas’s public universities were paying 72% more than they were just six years earlier.

Moreover, the state’s ambitious goal to expand seven emerging research universities reveals little understanding of the serious policy tradeoffs that must be considered if Texas is to achieve significantly higher levels of educational attainment, Perna and Finney say. Boosting research and prestige at public universities is an expensive undertaking that will take funds away from the state’s efforts to increase college enrollment and produce more graduates ready for tomorrow’s jobs.

“The future of economic and social mobility in Texas depends on the difficult choices that lie ahead for higher education,” Perna and Finney write. “Are Texas’s state leaders prepared to make them?”

Other states in the study are Illinois, Georgia, Maryland and Washington. The full report is available here.

In addition to Finney and Perna, the following people have agreed to be available beginning Monday, April 16, to speak to the press about this report:

Harrison Keller
Vice Provost of Higher Education and Policy Research & Visiting Professor
University of Texas at Austin

David Spence
Southern Regional Education Board

Aims McGuinness
Senior Associate
National Center for Higher Education Management Systems

About the Institute

The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, conducts research relevant to policymakers and educational practitioners. For the past three years, under the leadership of its new director, Joni Finney, IRHE has collaborated with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education to complete a five-state policy review, the State Review Project, to determine the relationship between public policy and state performance in higher education.