News Room

From the Senator's Desk . . .
March 19, 2009

For too many Texas families, college is a distant dream. And if we don’t meet the challenge of educating our children, for the first time in Texas history, the next generation will be less prosperous than the generation today.

Written by Senator Eliot Shapleigh,


"Keeping the Dream Alive"

For too many Texas families, college is a distant dream. And if we don’t meet the challenge of educating our children, for the first time in Texas history, the next generation will be less prosperous than the generation today.

What drives success and prosperity is knowledge—understanding, initiative and innovation. With an expected population of 50 million by 2040, the future of our state will be defined by the education of our people.  If Texas is going to meet the challenge of a knowledge-based 21st century economy, new policies and new leadership will have to take us there.

In our recent past, Texas has made the wrong choices on education, and today we are experiencing the results.  In 2003, Texas was faced with a $10 billion shortfall in the budget.  Instead of protecting critical investments in public and higher education, state leaders passed tax breaks for millionaires— $334 million a year for the wealthiest Texans—then hiked college costs through tuition deregulation to make up the difference.

What was the result? By Fall 2009, total academic charges at UT-El Paso will be more than 73 percent higher than fall 2003.

In a state where just 26 percent of Texans aged 25 to 65 have a college education or better, limiting access to education is a policy we can not afford.  When we consider that a person with a high school diploma earns $1.7 million over a lifetime, while a person with a bachelor's degree earns on average $3 million, the value of education is literally the foundation of our future prosperity.  In fact, unless we make needed investments, Steve Murdock, the former head of the U.S. Census, bluntly predicts that Texas family incomes will drop by $6500 years from 2000 to 2040.

Given that the students are the consumers of education at our state's colleges and universities, we should ask them what works—and how to solve problems that have long challenged higher education.  In 2005, we challenged fifty UTEP students to create a plan for a quality college education. This group devised the UTEP 2015 plan, which analyzed issues and offered solutions for students who face rising tuition costs, stagnant family incomes and uncertain job prospects.   

Based the UTEP 2015 blueprint, our office has filed a number of bills to put the plan into action:

·         Promoting Dual Credit Courses in Grades 9-12.  Our office amended language in SB 282 (80R) requiring that a counselor at a public high school provide information upon a student's enrollment about the importance of higher education, opportunities for future financial aid, and the availability of programs in the district under which a student may earn college credit such advanced placement classes and dual credit programs.  Student participation in dual credit has been steadily rising since record-keeping began in 1999. The number of students participating in fall 2007 was 64,910, a 545 percent increase since fall 1999.  It is our goal to continue to grow these numbers over the coming years, resulting in savings to both students and the state.


·         Creating Online Graduation and Finance Plans and Guaranteeing No Tuition Hikes in Return for Graduation on Time.  We filed the concept this session as SB 195, which would allow a student online access to their financial aid and academic information. SB 195 would require that institutions of higher education provide a method by which students can see their current courses, audit their degree progress, and monitor their financial aid status.  We based this bill on UTEP 2015, a roadmap created by UTEP students for improving educational opportunities.


·         Fighting to Fully Fund TEXAS Grants.  Created in 1999, the TEXAS Grant program provides tuition and fees to students who have excelled academically and have taken the advance and recommended curriculum in high school.  In 2000, nearly 11,000 students had received a TEXAS Grant to pay for college; by 2006, a total of 161,000 students had received 327,000 TEXAS Grants to help achieve the dream of college. Unfortunately, Due to inadequate funding, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates that more than half of eligible students will not be served by the program in 2009.  As a result, we are examining different methods to increase funding for this essential program. 


·         Creating Work-Study Programs for 25 Percent of UT System Students.  Our office filed SB 668 this session, which would provide funding for a student mentorship pilot program at five institutions of higher education. The program entails that senior students would be trained and then paid to mentor incoming students. This pilot program would allow seniors to finance part of their education while informing incoming students about financial and academic opportunities available to them.


·         Capping Tuition for On Time Graduation.  Tuition rates increase tremendously each year, and El Paso students have had trouble keeping up with expenses. This session, we filed SB 667, which would cap a student's tuition fee at the rate it was when he or she first entered the institution, provided that the student meets certain grade point average and other academic minimums.


·         Keeping Predatory Lenders Off Campus.  Credit card companies market on college campuses across the nation and many students, including students from El Paso, have fallen victim to predatory credit lending practices. We filed SB 676, which would make credit card companies more accountable in their marketing strategies and would also require institutions of higher education to provide financial and debt education to incoming students.


·         Allowing Current UTEP Students to Assist the Next Generation.  Our office is currently working with the UTEP Student Government Association on a bill that would create a student endowment scholarship and internship program.  Currently, the Texas Education Code allows universities to impose a student fee to be dedicated exclusively to funding student scholarships and internships.  Should the UTEP student vote to approve the program, it would expend the funding on scholarships based on leadership, financial need, and academic achievement, as well as an internship program.  The bill is SB 1849.


·         Providing Nontraditional Hours for Nontraditional Students.  UTEP and other institutions that primarily serve nontraditional students must open their doors and schedule classes during nontraditional hours.  Providing students with the option to attend class during the evening and on weekends will allow them to take more hours and thus graduate more quickly.  This is an essential step to increase incredibly low graduation rates.  We filed SB 875, which would require institutions of higher education to consider student preference in setting course schedules.


·         Creating More Tier One Universities in Texas.  only two public universities in Texas are considered among the top tier of research institutions nationally - The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University. California, on the other hand, exemplifies what can happen when a state prioritizes higher education and sets out a goal to build numerous top-quality research universities aimed at generating jobs, spurring technology growth, and advancing the cause of higher education. Based on a report from the Center for Measuring University Performance, California has eight tier one universities, resulting in a huge boon to the state's research base and commercial development.  Texas cannot be competitive - neither in the U.S. nor globally - with only two public tier one universities.  The current issues surrounding the top ten percent plan relates in part to the extremely low number of seats at the two tier ones Texas universities. To help grow the number of top tier universities, we filed SB 1564, which creates the Tier One Challenge Fund.

The 21st century will be more about future students' lives than current lawmakers' ideologies.  To succeed, we must first make a choice between more tax cuts for the wealthy or critical investments in our future.  In a democracy, budgets are moral choices.  In our government, budgets reflect what we value.  Instead of more tax cuts designed around the next election, let’s value better investments in our greatest resource, our children.  If we do, Texas will be the state of the future.

Eliot Shapleigh


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