February 1, 2007
Don Watson didn’t go to college straight out of high school.
He joined the Air Force and, after getting out, went to work as an electrical technician. He started a family. And he figured out pretty quickly that a lot of his goals for who and what he wanted to be were unreachable without higher education.
So he spent his days at work and his nights earning an electrical engineering degree. I can’t imagine what his life – or mine – would have been like without that belated, hard-earned college diploma.
As for me and my brother Kyle, there was never any doubt. Growing up, we were always going to college. If we ever wondered how much it meant, Don Watson was there to remind us of the opportunity.
In a significant way, Austin itself has demonstrated my father’s lesson. My years as mayor, Chamber of Commerce chair, and one of UT’s neighbors have offered endless reminders about how much of our economic prosperity flows directly from decisions that were made about higher education in general, and the University of Texas at Austin in particular, 20, 30, and 40 years ago.
My old man also used to tell me, “Son, we need to find a way for you to make a living with that mouth. Otherwise, it’s just going to get you in trouble.”
As he prophesied, I gave a speech this week to a good-sized group of folks. I mentioned my views about higher education and tossed out that I want more flagship universities in Texas. A couple of media folks picked it up and created a neat little stir.
And, yeah, it’s time to start talking about these things. But this issue is about a lot more than just creating another flagship university.
The truth is that my plan is no more about adding a flagship than a home run is about getting to first base. Sure, creating or elevating a third campus to the ranks of UT and A&M is an important step, but only because three comes after two.
Our generation should be reminded of the opportunities we’ve had and be as bold as my father’s was. Texas must start thinking BIG again.
Texas faces a global economy that demands and depends on an educated, creative, and talented workforce. This should compel us to constantly update, enhance, and prepare for the future of higher education, because that is the future of Texas.
Texas must enroll a minimum of 430,000 additional students in public universities – an increase of more than 35 percent – just to keep up in the 21st Century economy, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. But instead of doubling down on higher education, the state’s investment in its colleges and universities deteriorates, whittling budgets that would make a difference for kids who know they’d be better off with a better education.
In 1985, the state paid 55.4% of its higher education costs. In 2006, that was down to 35.1%. The rest comes from a number of sources including, increasingly, tuition.
In 2003, almost 39,000 kids received a scholarship under Texas Grants, our flagship financial aid program. In 2006, that number was projected to drop to about 23,000 students, thanks to budget cuts.
Just 26 percent of Texans aged 25-65 have made it as far as a bachelor’s degree. And Texas ranks dead last in the percentage of population over 25 with a high school diploma.
If you believe, as I do, that the best, most socially responsible economic development tool is education, then these are chilling numbers.
The Texas economy needs more than two nationally recognized flagship universities, probably a lot more. Yet instead of getting behind even one new institution that, with UT and Texas A&M, could have the economic development power of 100 Toyota plants, we get bogged down in turf wars about where it will go, and in win-lose politics that force one school to suffer if another is to benefit.
Every time that happens, we sacrifice prosperity and progress to myopia and the status quo.
From a business standpoint, we must do all we can to maximize our investment in higher education. According to William Powers, the President of UT-Austin, and former A&M President Robert Gates, every $1 that Texas puts into colleges spins off more than $5 in the economy.
Not bad. However, every dollar spent on flagship research universities, such as UT or A&M, multiplies into an economic impact of $18.
The future of Texas’ economy is waiting to be revealed in the labs of Austin and College Station. It resides in undiscovered corners of young minds in Dallas and El Paso and McAllen. It lies within unbuilt buildings in Lubbock and Houston and San Antonio. We must tap these wells, not ignore them in the name of politics.
Texas cannot do as little as possible and hope for the best. We must stop asking, particularly on education, “What can we get by with?” It’s time to ask ourselves, “How high can we reach?”
There’s no doubt that we can take intermediate steps by investing adequately in the universities we have and providing more scholarships to the next wave of creative, highly skilled workers. Credit Gov. Perry, who this week rolled out his own higher education funding program, for demonstrating how important this issue is. I look forward to working with him to make sure the state is meeting its obligations to Texas universities and students.
But we need to think bigger. Throwing money at Texas higher education won’t do much good if we don’t understand what we have and what we don’t.
So, in the coming days, I plan to file a bill that would have the state take a hard look at its higher education institutions, figure out what they need, and find a way to get it to them.
I talked a little about this plan in that speech Monday. But it somehow got boiled down to three little words: “third flagship university.” I’m already hearing from folks around the state telling me why their school just has to win this beauty pageant.
But our needs are much deeper than that. My plan would create a path for the state to:
Drawing this roadmap would be a panel composed primarily of representatives from each of Texas’ major university systems – all insulated, hopefully, from the political forces that have undermined past efforts to match state colleges and universities to the needs of Texans.
I have no idea where this panel will end up, in terms of geography or policy. Such openness and uncertainty, I believe, is essential. No one – regardless of where they live in the state – should bring an agenda into this process. It’s not about individual philosophies, priorities, or regions.
It’s about Texas, all of us.
It’s about making the big decisions that will prepare Texas for the next 20, 30, and 40 years.
And it’s about thinking big again.
By the way, in a shadow box at home, I keep the class ring that Daddy bought when he finally graduated. It’s a big old hog of a piece of jewelry. You’d think it was for winning the Super Bowl or something.
Speaking of which, Indianapolis by 6. But, I ain’t betting. Daddy would be relieved.