Rick Perry's Higher Education Woes

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s has had a tough go with higher education. Costs to attend the state's college have shot past the support the state provides to students. State community colleges, for example, are 90 percent more expensive since 2000 while, over the same period, government spending increased only 23 percent. The disparity is even more pronounced for the major flagship universities. On top of that, in the most recent budget, no appropriations were made for enrollment increases, and state financial aid was cut 15 percent. So what is Governor Perry’s tonic for this sour mixture? Forcing local governments to choose to raise taxes and making Texas’s nationally-renowned research universities more like for-profit colleges.

Governor Perry’s big idea to fix the cost problem in higher education is to try to make a college degree cost $10,000 by implementing what he calls the “Seven Breakthrough Solutions.” Right now, a Texas public school can cost as much as $70,000. So, no surprise, change doesn’t come easy. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the plan “would separate teaching and research budgets, give professors pay raises based on student evaluations, and treat students as customers.” In other words, the state’s universities would be turned on their heads and become less like traditional research universities, where faculty are given license to pursue their own research interests free of student pressure, and more like for-profit colleges, where the bottom-line is prioritized over quality. The chart above, pulled from The Texas Public Policy foundation, the organization who drafted Perry’s proposal, makes clear that for-profits are a direct model for the improvements.

Backlash has been strong, not least because the plan runs against more than a hundred years of university history. Gary C. Kelly, the president of Southwest Airlines and a graduate of and adviser to the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to Mr. Perry that the reforms "potentially could paralyze an organization and render it uncompetitive.” The Association of American Universities called some of the proposals “ill-conceived.” Twenty-two distinguished Texas A&M alumni also launched a counter-campaign. The pressure was enough that the A&M university system’s chancellor at the time, Michael D. McKinney, who embraced the reform proposal and who previously served as Perry’s chief of staff, resigned in May. The whole ordeal has been an enormous hassle. Rick O'Donnell, a fellow for The Texas Public Policy foundation, was fired after six weeks of employment for the University of Texas’s Board of Regents after pushing too hard for reforms. As a result, he threatened to sue, resulting in a $70,000 settlement case.

But all that said, this isn’t the first time Perry’s proposed solutions that perked up some ears. In 2007, he proposed top-down, No Child Left Behind-style subject-area tests for college graduates that would tie student score outcomes to institutional funding. Needless to say, that one didn’t get off the ground -- although it did send the message he was willing to throw caution into the wind to make cuts.

Perry thinks he can get away with the plan by forcing local districts to take the blame. Between 2000 and 2005, local community college districts, which set their own tuition and fees, had to levy a 7 percent increase on property taxes to pay for costs. Those taxes, Governor Perry says, are the locality’s choice, not his. As one protester told the Houston Chronicle, “That’s like him saying ‘I put the bullet in the Ruger and I shot the coyote, but it was the bullet that killed the coyote, not me.’”