Urgent warning about proposed change in how Texas public universities are funded

Dear TACT Colleagues:

We are writing to you to give you an urgent warning about a matter that we believe deserves your careful attention. Recently the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) has proposed an “Accelerated Plan for Closing the Gaps by 2015.” This plan aims increase the percentage of students, especially Hispanic and African American students, who successfully complete a college education. The relevant documents are available from the THECB website at http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/ . TACT has long been a strong supporter of the “Closing the Gaps” initiative, and we stand firmly behind recommendations in the plan such as providing all high school students with a rigorous curriculum, improving the effectiveness of developmental education, and implementing comprehensive student support services.

However, there is one recommendation in the plan that concerned us enough to ask Dr. Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to meet with us on Saturday June 5 in Austin. Dr. Paredes graciously agreed, and so we had a chance to listen to him explain the plan and to ask him specific questions. He told us that research such as that  in Clifford Adelman’s (1999, 2006) Answers in the Toolbox and The Tool Box Revisited showed that several factors such as (1) faculty taking roll, (2) a strong orientation program, (3) robust advising and mentoring, (4) personal faculty contact, especially with students in difficulty, and (5) a change in class drop dates.

We could support all those points, but from a THECB press release about Closing the Gaps here is a description of the particular recommendation that deeply concerned us:*

“One key Paredes recommendation focused on student success is to change what day during a semester students at public universities are counted for the purpose of state funding. Currently the student count or “census date” occurs on the 12th class day of the semester. The plan proposes changing the census date to the last day of the semester to ensure that students complete courses.”

In our conversation with Dr. Paredes, he clarified that those students who finish a course with an F will nonetheless be counted as having completed the course, evidently because he believes that they will be more likely to graduate eventually than those who drop the course. So he feels he can say, as he did in the press release “This proposal focuses on students who complete courses being counted for state funding purposes and is independent of the grades the students may earn, so faculty will have no incentive for grade inflation.”

We respectfully but firmly disagreed. We told Dr. Paredes that on our campuses, one of the main reasons why students drop a class is that they have a poor grade on the first examination, and they drop precisely to avoid getting an F in the course, and thus they drop to avoid damaging their GPA, their chances for financial aid, etc.  But under the new funding proposal students who drop early in the semester, because they get a low grade or for any other reason, will not be counted. Therefore the university will not be funded for their efforts to educate those students. We believe it’s likely that there will be an overwhelmingly strong incentive under the proposed funding mechanism not to fail students so that they will not drop the course thus insuring that they will be counted for funding purposes.

Dr. Paredes understood our concerns, but he asserted that the state could monitor grades given out, detect patterns of grade inflation, and then respond. We expressed dismay that there was no concrete plan to deal with what we see as an obvious potential threat to the quality of the education that our students receive.

We expressed our thanks to Dr. Paredes for meeting with us, we stated again that TACT strongly endorses the aim of Closing the Gaps to increase participation and success in higher education and that we value the gains that have been achieved since the initiative was first put in place. With that the meeting concluded.

TACT colleagues, we strongly urge you to analyze the issue yourselves. If you come to the same conclusions we did about what the proposed change in formula funding  would likely do to harm our students and our universities, then please communicate your concerns to members of your university community.

And, if you should happen contact your elected representatives to express your concerns, please remember that there are a few simple guidelines to follow when communicating with an elected official:

•Do not write on college or university stationery.
•Do not call on a college or university telephone.
•Do not use university e-mail.
•Do not present your views as your university’s “official” position.

Not sure who your State Senator and Representative are? Find out on “Who Represents Me” at: http://www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us/

Sincerely,

TACT Executive Board Members:

Gary Coulton                             Mark Gaus                                          Peter Hugill
Frank Fair                                  Cindy Simpson                                  Allen Martin
Elizabeth Lewandowski

TACT Executive Director:
Chuck Hempstead

*Edited 6/16/10