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Higher education admissions and funding debated in Austin

February 14, 2019

AUSTIN — Many Texas high school students want to go to University of Texas at Austin but can’t get in and instead opt for an out-of-state education, according to state officials.

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers voiced concerns about the situation and discussed UT-Austin’s automatic acceptance threshold, which admits Texas high school students who are in the top 6 percent of their high school class.

“Let’s face it: A lot of students want to come to [UT-Austin]. It’s the place to be,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said, but the limit on automatic admission has been heartbreaking for many students.

“We’re doing something wrong,” Huffman said. “I believe that from the bottom of my heart. …. It is wrong that there are so many of our talented students that are going out of state and we lose them. … We are letting our young people down, and I urge us to look at this and try to think outside of the box and try to find a way to meet the needs of the young people and the students who want to be in the state.”

At the hearing other state universities and colleges issued various funding requests, ranging from Hurricane Harvey relief to seeking an increase or restoration of state funding.

For instance, at a House hearing Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp requested $55 million before to help close the difference in funding for its flagship Texas A&M University-College Station and the University of Texas at Austin, which receives nearly $900 more in funding per year per student despite TAMU adding more students. The funds would go to hiring 200 faculty members, which would mean smaller classes for students and more services, but would not lower college costs, Sharp said.

On the issue of applications, UT-Austin officials told lawmakers there is a rising demand, which means many students — 23,000 this year — will be turned away, according to UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. But “it’s not just because of the 6 percent. We’re turning a lot of people away,” said Kevin Eltife, chairman of the UT System’s board.

Around 75 percent of UT-Austin’s admission offers are automatic, and of the 24,000 regular, non-automatic applications that the university receives, only 3,500 are accepted. The automatic admission, commonly referred to as the “Top 10 Percent Rule,” was enforced by the Senate Bill 175 passed in 2009 which set requirements on automatic admissions.

https://capitol.texas.gov/tlodocs/81R/billtext/html/SB00175F.htm

Last fall, 8,900 students were admitted — the largest freshman class in history, which was a result of the top 7 percent being admitted throughout the state, Fenves said. The number exceeded the university’s target of 7,500 to 7,700 students — an achievable amount that Fenves feels confident that UT-Austin will be able to adequately serve and educate. The large freshman class prompted a reduction from 7 to 6 percent, which was announced in September 2017. Fenves added that a higher automatic admissions threshold also limits the capacity for transfer students.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said she understood the university’s conundrum and commended officials.

“The good news is you’re doing a wonderful job, and there are many more students who would want to attend your university than you have space for,” Nelson said.

Still, like Huffman, Nelson said she was not confident in the current process, adding that many of her constituents, who “are dream students for any university in the country” are not accepted to UT-Austin and go out of state.

“I receive more calls about this than any other university institution,” said Sen. Nelson.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the high demand and limited space in admissions at UT-Austin is an argument for lawmakers to put resources into other state schools and provide resources so that they can become tier-one research universities “separate and apart from UT-Austin.”

Many institutions, including schools from the University of Houston System, requested assistance in funding Hazelwood exemptions, an exemption which allows veterans, their spouses and children free tuition and fees. University of Houston has covered a majority of the costs, Rena Khator, who serves as UH system chancellor and UH president, has asked that the state “appropriate resources” or modify the exemption.

Khator also requested $60 million for the UH Law Center, which has experienced substantial flooding over the years; a total of $40 million for the university’s college of medicine; and assistance with Hurricane Harvey repair system-wide after around 100 buildings throughout the UH system have experienced some damage.

Lone Star College was the only community college to submit a proposal for $15 million to assist with the damage caused by Harvey, which resulted in it temporarily closing six of its nine buildings at its Kingwood campus.

Lone Star College was the only community college to submit a proposal for to assist with damage caused by Harvey, which resulted in it temporarily closing six of its nine buildings at the Kingwood campus. Lone Star requested $15 million.

University of Houston-Downtown President Juan Munoz requested $15 million, half of which would go to transforming a building on campus into the university’s first student union building, a place where its many commuter students can congregate and connect.

Various medical schools, including the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston sought funds that would assist with programing and new ventures.

UTMB President David Callendar requested a version of formula funding be created for its hospital, which has been offered similarly to the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and UT-Tyler. He also asked for a $11 million restoration of cuts from last legislative session that would have supported critical programs and research, and to address the budget for correctional health care programs that serve the incarcerated. Callendar said the costs have gone up, which can put pressure on the institution.

“We want to provide this service, and we want to do it at a right level, but we also don’t want to be in the situation where we’re taking money from [academics] to support this service,” Callendar said.

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston requested a total of $18 million for its UTHealth Women’s Health Education and Research Center, which will serve Texas women for a variety of health priorities, including maternal fetal medicine and trauma. The science center also requested $12.7 million per biennium for its work with the child sex trafficking victim’s office to dedicate an inpatient care system for victims as well as extensive outpatient treatment.

brittany.britto@chron.com

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