Raising prices and questions: the Tower Center forum on higher education in Texas

Hors-d’oeuvres and wine were paired with an intimate conversation about the rising cost of tuition, the value of education, and metrics for university success at The Tower Center Forum: The State of Higher Education in Texas. The event was held Thursday evening for a mix of Tower center members and SMU students and faculty in the stately home of Cary M. Maguire, a trustee emeritus of SMU.

All eyes and ears were on Dan Branch, the former chairman of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education, and current commissioner to the Education Commission of the States, and Dr. Michael K. McLendon, the dean of the School of Education and professor of Higher Education Policy and Leadership at Baylor University. They led the discussion and answered questions from Joshua Rovner, the distinguished chair and director at the Tower Center.

TowerCenter.JPG
Presidential portraits surround the forum audience in Cary M. Maguire's home Photo credit: Emma Hutchinson

The conversation kicked off with a comment from the host, Cary M. Maguire. Maguire showed concern about following very prestigious schools’ leads when increasing tuition costs.

“If Harvard does it, we’ve got to do it too,” Maguire said about the perception that Texas schools and many other schools around the country have in regard to making tuition decisions.

Talk circled around the hard fact that the current costs of education are on the rise. Almost every year, tuition increases, and funding for education can’t keep up, said officials. One large problem is the vast difference between public education funding and private education funding.

“The dirty secret is that public education got federal funding baked into the law,” Chairman Branch said.

The public university price for in-state students is much lower than the private university price. At community colleges in Texas, a typical full-time semester costs $1,500, which is a deal compared to bigger state schools like the University of Texas at Austin, that costs anywhere from $4,000-$5,000 per semester for in-state students, to the highest priced school, SMU, at about $20,000 per semester per student.

Besides the high priority cost issue, a common theme of the night was how universities needed to return to the fundamental purpose of higher education: to educate students.

“We need to make an effort to focus on learning outcomes,” McLendon said.

These learning outcomes are not just about graduation rates, even though these rates are important. He focused more on why universities should have a value proposition, or a fundamental benefit or educational reason for students to attend. It answers the question, “Why do universities exist?”

Rovner touched on other tough questions about measuring the success of state universities. Chairman Branch had strong feelings about the declining success rates of U.S. schools in comparison to other countries around the world.

“We are doing better, but not doing better fast enough,” Branch said.

Branch also said the U.S. was ranked among the top five in the world for education in the 1950s and 1960s, but now the U.S. is not even in the top 20.

Many of the issues discussed sparked a fire in the audience, as true feelings and comments about these difficult questions emerged.

“It was exciting to feel the conversation gaining steam,” Rovner said.

Thomas Schmedding, a Tower Scholar and junior SMU student, found that the discussion shed light on the challenges that higher education currently faces, and on what needs to be changed to establish a better future for universities in Texas.

“We need more of these dialogues in politics and on college campuses to develop viable, long term strategies,” Schmedding said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *