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Top Texas higher education official: Be wary of college expansion

Top Texas higher education official: Be wary of college expansion
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Texas’ top higher-education official on Wednesday warned public universities against creating new campuses and expanding programs without adequate state support.

Noting that multiple universities are seeking to offer medical degrees – but not mentioning the University of Houston by name – Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said the state would have to “make some tough decisions” moving forward.

“We’re expanding programs more quickly than resources from the state…suggest we should,” he said. “When we take a pie that is not growing very quickly and we slice it into smaller and smaller pieces, the differential impact is felt worse by smaller institutions.”

Paredes spoke at a Texas Senate higher education committee hearing that addressed what authority state policymakers should have over the development of new higher-education locations and programs. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick charged lawmakers with creating “a long-term statewide strategy for authorizing new locations and programs which includes a plan to ensure adequate support for expansion.”

UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator has said that adding a medical school is a top goal. She said on Twitter that she was in Austin on Wednesday for a meeting with other chancellors and state senators, but she did not testify.

UH spokesman Mike Rosen said Wednesday that the university was not worried that Paredes’ statement indicated a lack of support from the state’s higher education coordinating board, which must sign off on UH’s proposal before it can move forward. The plan would also require appropriations from state lawmakers.

“We’re working hand in hand with state officials,” Rosen said, adding that lawmakers had asked UH to evaluate the need for a medical school in the last legislative session.

That session proved a difficult one for Texas’ colleges and universities, whose administrators had to justify their spending to lawmakers. The University of Texas System’s decision to purchase hundreds of acres of land in southwest Houston without a stated goal drew fire from state senators. Chancellor William McRaven later called off the Houston expansion.

Also, Texas A&M University has developed programs outside of its traditional geographic region. In the fall, Texas A&M will begin offering bachelor’s degrees in fields including biomedical sciences and food systems industry management in McAllen.

Texas A&M also purchased a tract of land near the Texas Medical Center in the fall. Chancellor John Sharp said at the time that the UT deal was on his mind and notified two critics of UT’s purchase — the UH system and state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat — in advance.

McRaven was originally scheduled to testify Wednesday but had a schedule conflict, spokeswoman Karen Adler said.

Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican from Amarillo and the committee’s chair, said the UT purchase was not directly addressed in Wednesday’s hearing because that session was intended to be a “broader policy discussion.”


Student costs

Paredes said that if universities expand their offerings or build new campuses without an increase of state support, student costs would likely increase.

His comments follow tuition increases from the UH and UT Systema this month. In each case, administrators attributed the hikes to lower state support per full-time student.

College presidents and chancellors on Wednesday told lawmakers about ways they were trying to make degrees more affordable.

University of Houston-Downtown President Juan Sánchez Muñoz said his campus is offering a new nursing degree program with Houston Community College.

Muñoz also put in a plug for more funding for the university, one of the largest in Houston.

The university has a “very, very modest portion of the pie,” he said. “We have a greater appetite.”

Lindsay Ellis writes about higher education for the Chronicle. You can follow her on Twitter and send her tips at lindsay.ellis@chron.com.

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