Texas A&M Is All-in When It Comes to Engineering

Can it be that Texas A&M plans to out-tech…Georgia Tech? Engineering majors at the renowned Georgia institution make up almost 60% of undergrads. It now appears that Texas A&M may be headed toward a similar profile–and may well have the funding and the will to make it happen.

Only a few years ago, the Texas A&M and University of Texas systems were fighting to maintain academic excellence in the midst of severe legislative budget cuts and attacks from then-Governor Rick Perry, an A&M alumnus.

Today, Perry is out of office, and the A&M System just approved a $400 million funding increase, thanks in large measure to legislative action that added $3.3 billion in higher ed funding.  Almost $200 million of this amount will be for research. The bulk of the money will go for expansions to keep pace with enrollment increases in the A&M and UT Systems. The University of Houston System also received additional funding.

And this: the Legislature also added $91 million in financial aid funding. A&M will also use $10 million, from multiple sources, for professorships and for the Texas A&M Institute for Advanced Study, “which aims to attract top-tier academic and research talent from around the country to participate in fellowships.” Such a plan contrasts sharply with the aims of Perry and his allies, who were willing to sacrifice academic research and excellence in the name of cheaper, more “productive” strategies.

The 2016 budget narrative states that the A&M System is providing $22.5 million in one-time available university funding to Texas A&M University (main campus). Some of this largesse is the result of the state’s booming economy, and some has come about with the change of leadership in the state.

For a while now, A&M has had a plan for using this and other money, much of it in donations to support the Dwight Look College of Engineering. In 2013, the Texas A&M main campus in College Station announced the “25 by 25” project, aimed at increasing the enrollment of engineering students on campus to 25,000 by the year 2025.

Chancellor John Sharp, a powerful leader in state higher ed and political circles, said that in 2012, the main campus had 10,000 applications for only 1,600 slots in engineering. You can bet that a lot of the money this biennium will go to salaries and research in engineering.

To put the goal of 25,000 engineering students in perspective, we have estimated the percentage of engineering majors that Texas A&M could have if the “25 by 25” goals are met. If the undergrad student body grows to 40,000, and 25,000 of those are engineering students (60%), then Texas A&M will bear a strong resemblance to the engineering behemoth that is Georgia Tech.

What happens when an Aggie meets a Ramblin’ Wreck? This is one Aggie joke that is likely to be no joke on the Aggies at all.

Honors News is a regular (not always daily) update, in brief, of recent news from honors colleges/programs and from the world of higher ed. Occasionally, a bit of opinion enters the discussion. These brief posts are by John Willingham, unless otherwise noted.

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Risk or Predictability: UT System Fixed Tuition Proposal Is No Guarantee

Despite the failure of fixed tuition plans in Georgia and Michigan, and the dubious results of similar efforts in Illinois, the University of Texas System Board of Regents is following the wishes of Gov. Rick Perry and ordering all UT System campuses to come up with proposals to set four-year fixed tuition rates for future entering freshmen.

Perry has been pushing a variety of alleged reforms in Texas, most of them in line with recommendations from groups that have an ideological agenda that is a threat to excellence in public universities.  For the last year and a half, Perry and his followers on the System board, along with right-wing “think tanks,” such as the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, have been attacking UT Austin and its president, Bill Powers.

Because of this antagonistic relationship and the poor record of fixed tuition plans in other states, UT system schools should view the latest demand with considerable skepticism.  For one thing, when a university sets fixed tuition for four years for a given entering class, the institution has no way of knowing how much (or, more likely, how little) state funding will be allocated for the same period.  So what happens is that schools set modest fixed rates and run the risk of low-balling expenses or they set higher rates to hedge against cuts in state funding.

For this reason, it is typical for the initial implementation of fixed rates to yield somewhat higher tuition increases than would otherwise have been set.  Moreover, the subsequent entering classes are still subject to higher tuition rates than the class before it.

At the University of Illinois, where fixed tuition was implemented with the support of disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2003, “fixed” tuition rose 9.5 percent for the class of 2010, over the previous class, and then rose another 4.8 percent for the class of 2011.  How much of this increase was needed to offset the fixed rates for previous classes is anybody’s guess.  And four-year graduation rates have not substantially improved, according to university officials.

In Georgia and Michigan, state universities had to forgo their fixed tuition plans because the volatility of state funding and the complexity of budget forecasting made the process to complex to sustain.   University officials emphasized that stable, continuing state funding support was necessary to successful implementation, but the financial crisis led to sharp cuts.

One motive for the UT System plan, aside from providing politicians with what appear to be nice talking points, could be a desire to make UT Austin more vulnerable to state decision-makers and micro-management, since the fixed plans will likely restrict institutional autonomy.

Perry and his supporters point to the UT Dallas as the exemplar of the fixed tuition approach.  While it is true that the four-year graduation rate for UT Dallas has increased from 46 to 51 percent since the implementation of the plan in 2007, it is also true that UT Dallas has the highest tuition of any public university in the state–14 percent higher than UT Austin and 31 percent higher than Texas A&M.

Supporters of fixed tuition say that UT Dallas has so many business and science majors that their costs are necessarily higher.  A review of the variable tuition rates at UT Austin confirms that students majoring in business pay about 6 percent more tuition than the average tuition at the school; engineering majors pay about 4.8 percent more.  Aside from nursing, these are the most expensive majors.

According to U.S. News, the most popular major at UT Dallas is, indeed, business, with 32 percent of students enrolled.  But at Texas A&M, 18 percent of students major in business, and another 14 percent in engineering.   Since there appears to be relatively little difference in the cost of educating business and engineering majors, both UT Dallas and Texas A&M have the same proportion of students in high-cost majors; yet average tuition at UT Dallas is much higher.

Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, who frequently follows Perry’s lead on university “reform,” is also advocating fixed tuition in Florida.  Ohio University is also looking at fixed tuition options.  Yet amid all the change in higher ed these days, no option is without risk, even (or especially) when the goal is predictability.