Public higher education in Texas will face radical change if a series of proposals now being discussed are adopted.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) think tank and some state leaders are advocating a business-style, market-driven approach under which colleges and universities would treat students as customers, de-emphasize research that isn’t immediately lucrative, and evaluate individual faculty by the tuition revenue they generate. Advocates of these proposals see them as a necessary response to the rising cost of higher education, a cure for a system they suggest is inefficient and inaccessible.

We disagree. We do not believe this is the right response to the problems now facing higher education or one that recognizes The University of Texas at Austin’s proven levels of efficiency and excellence in educating Texas students.

The challenges for Texas’ colleges and universities are very real: statewide, 17 percent of students graduate in four years and about half finish in six. Just 62 percent of Texas high school seniors took the SAT or ACT in 2009. Of those, only 27 percent scored at least 1100 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT, the gold standard of performance that top colleges expect.

Although the state has made some progress in closing achievement gaps in higher education, it continues to miss several important targets on goals established in 2000. These include increasing Hispanic enrollment, awarding more degrees to African American students, and awarding more degrees in fields related to technology.

For much of the past decade, The University of Texas at Austin has sought to address these and other problems. We have strived to better provide a world-class education, secure successful learning outcomes, maintain high graduation rates, and support innovative research.

Several basic measures – among them, our 81 percent, six-year graduation rate and our in-state tuition of less than $10,000 per year – suggest that the state’s flagship university is already a national leader in improving efficiency and excellence. We have also developed programs to increase retention rates and help students graduate more quickly and have worked with other universities and professional organizations in Texas and across the country to identify the best practices to achieve better learning outcomes.

These efforts were affirmed and extended by the Report of the Commission of 125, a group of distinguished alumni and citizens convened to develop a long-term vision for how The University of Texas at Austin can serve Texas and the larger society. The commission’s 2004 recommendations led to the development of a new undergraduate core curriculum and more demanding academic standards. The task force charged with implementing the commission’s recommendations wrote:
A great research university has more than one priority. The core educational experience for undergraduate students is central to the University’s mission, but there are other important elements. Graduate education is critical. Strong majors for undergraduates are important so that students gain in-depth learning within a discipline. Research is essential and, in turn, it enriches teaching at all levels. A core curriculum in a great, public research university must be aligned with these other important goals.

The proposals put forward by TPPF and others are not aligned with these goals. Moreover, some have been tried elsewhere and have yet to be proven successful.

Though they may appear attractive at first glance, several of the proposals stand to undermine successful initiatives that already promote quality teaching. Others would fundamentally change the university’s status as a top-tier university in which research and teaching are inextricably linked in ways that are crucial to both missions.

The most visible and detailed of the recent proposals are TPPF’s seven “breakthrough solutions” which would separate universities’ research and teaching functions, measure professors largely on the basis of student evaluations, and establish learning contracts and state-funded vouchers for students.

Jeff Sandefer, a member of TPPF’s board of directors and founder of the Acton MBA program, is the architect of these “breakthrough solutions.” He originally presented them in 2008 to the leaders of six Texas public university systems.

The proposals, however, fail to recognize the different missions of, and populations served by, these systems. They offer the same ideas, for example, to the regional University of North Texas, with 37,000 students in three units, and the statewide University of Texas, with nearly a quarter-million students in nine universities and six health institutions.

The proposals also fail to recognize the unique contributions and strengths of the individual schools. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, is the tenth most efficient public research university in the country in using limited amounts of tuition and taxpayer funds to graduate large numbers of students.

This record of success should be a model for other colleges and universities in Texas. It leads us to question a recent suggestion that the flagship increase enrollment by 46 percent while the University of Texas System cut tuition in half, an approach we fear will diminish our graduation rate. Likewise, we are skeptical that a recent challenge to develop a quality bachelor’s degree that costs less than $10,000 can yield the levels of excellence or efficiency we already reach or serve students effectively.

Here, we address TPPF’s “breakthrough solutions” in detail. We discuss the other recent proposals and the common assumptions on which they all rest. We analyze the dangers of applying a business-style, market-based approach inside the classroom.

As consultants to the University of Houston System noted in a 2008 analysis, the TPPF proposals seek to approach complex issues with “simple tools” or “one-size-fits-all” solutions. If implemented, they will likely lead to structural changes in higher education that will leave Texas lagging behind other states and drive top students and faculty away.

Put simply, this is the wrong approach.