February 15, 2007
Everything’s bigger in Texas, according to conventional bumper-sticker wisdom. Texas is a huge state, and its needs, especially in the realm of higher education, continue to grow as our population swells. However, those needs are much too big to be met by Texas’ two tier-one research institutions, Texas A&M and the University of Texas, no matter how grand the universities may be.Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, announced in late January his plans to explore the possibility of developing a new tier-one research institution in Texas. After years of studying the issue, forming task forces and holding hearings, it is about time the Legislature took action. There are many definitions of what constitutes a tier-one university, but the most common include a high level of research expenditures – around the area of at least $100 million annually – and an emphasis on doctoral programs.Texas currently lags behind the majority of the most populous states in terms of the number of research institutions it houses. This is most apparent in contrast with California, which hosts seven tier-one institutions, two of which are among the finest in the country. The necessity of adding one or more tier-one institutions is apparent, as the growth of the Texas population is outstripping our universities’ capacity to accept graduate students. This has triggered a flight of quality students to other states and private institutions. In addition, the economic impact of research universities is enormous. Studies have shown that money spent by universities is multiplied an estimated three-and-one-half times in the state economy. This means if a university can attract $100 million in federal research grants, the state economy usually sees a boost of $350 million. Analyses of the economy in California credit its sustained economic growth largely to its high number of research institutions.Tier-one institutions make the communities which host them attractive to major companies, as well. Corporations benefit from the universities’ high-tech facilities, research opportunities with faculty and a steady pool of qualified graduates. The state can also benefit from commercialization of technologies produced at research universities. If we continue to operate with only two major research institutions, these benefits will accrue to other states.The consensus among officials in Texas higher education seems to be that it is necessary to develop a new tier-one school, but only if it does not come at the expense of our existing ones. Funding per student at UT and A&M already lags behind that of their counterparts in California by thousands of dollars.However, there are universities in Texas that are well-positioned to make the leap to tier-one status. At the front of the pack are the University of Houston and Texas Tech. The University of Houston has taken great strides in the past decade, more than doubling its federal funding between 1999 and 2003 to nearly $90 million.Several universities in the UT System, including UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas and UT-San Antonio, also aspire to tier-one status.With a little state support, these universities could make the transition. It’s a short-term loss that will pay off in time.Given constraints imposed by a tight state budget, necessary improvements may need to be phased-in over years, perhaps even decades. That’s why the state can no longer afford to waste any more time, lest the Lone Star State be left in the dust.