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2011 February 21 - 12:00 am

POV: Tough Times Ahead Mean Difficult Choices, Harsh Consequences

Shirley A. Reed
The budgets are out. The House and Senate versions have been pondered and scrutinized line by line. Each has been criticized and lauded. Now it’s up to our legislators to come together and make decisions that will ultimately change the course of life for every Texan in some way. What I’m talking about is the budget for the state of Texas for the next biennium.

Many Texans are going about their daily lives right now, not fully realizing how the next few months will shape their futures — the roads they drive, the taxes they pay, their homeland security or their ability to pursue happiness. But at the center of the debate in every corner of the state is education funding. From pre-K programs to adult literacy and workforce retraining, education impacts all our lives and, both House and Senate drafts of the Texas budget demand cuts from every level of education. Deep cuts.

“Cuts,” for those who do not understand political terminology, mean no funding for growth and reduced levels of existing services. But the release of Texas House and Senate budget plans go far beyond mere cuts. They extend into ending entire programs, including some that would greatly impact the growth and economic prosperity of the state.

For South Texas College specifically, the cuts in the preliminary budgets mean that overall, we would see our funding from the state decrease by anywhere from 12 to 17 percent. This means substantially less funding to educate our 30,000 students. Already our students are burdened by paying a little more than 42 percent of our $133 million a year annual operating budget. And while we are certainly committed to doing everything possible to make sure costs for students do not increase, there are no guarantees. Educators at all levels face an uncertain future beyond this legislative session. Once these cuts are approved, they will negatively impact education in Texas for the next decade and beyond.

Dealing with the funding gap will not be a quick and easy process. We will have to consider a variety of options, including charging for services that were once free. We will have to run our college as leanly as possible. We have already reduced operating costs by 10 percent every year for the past two years in anticipation of a budget shortfall. We will continue to pursue grant funds and ask our employees to make sacrifices in terms of taking on more responsibilities, working with older technologies and stretching necessary instructional materials. But while these changes may help address that 12 to 17 percent reduction in state funding, they will not scratch the surface in addressing the budget deficits we face in other critical programs.

It is possible that we will lose most of the funding for health insurance for our 1,280 eligible employees. We are looking at ways to help our employees and their families shoulder the costs of their insurance for their spouses and dependents. Hopefully we will find a solution.

The House budget plan completely defunds STC’s bachelor of applied technology degree program. Since its launch in 2005, more than 400 residents have graduated from the program, earning a degree that has changed their lives for the better. If the program is not funded, the 300-plus students currently enrolled may have to take on additional tuition costs, which could prevent them from continuing their studies at the college of their choice — STC.

Dual enrollment programs, which allow qualifying high school students to earn college credit, tuition-free, may be seriously slashed or go unfunded. STC has one of the largest tuition-free dual enrollment programs in the state, with almost 9,000 students enrolled each semester. The program expands every year, creating new opportunities for learning and training because we know that dual enrollment success encourages first-generation students to go to college. It gives students the confidence they need to realize they are capable of college work.

To date, South Texas College has saved families more than $60 million in college tuition costs. We have seen our dual enrollment students go on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees and stay in the community, contributing to growing our local economy. These programs are necessary incentives to encourage a college-going culture in our region, whereby we want all students to begin the journey to completing college. Currently, less than 40 percent of residents between the ages of 16 and 25 in our region have earned a high school diploma. If these programs are limited, how many more students will forgo the opportunity to attend college and drop out of high school?

These are a few of the cuts we are facing at STC. And it paints a disturbing picture of the choices we will be facing in the future. But as STC president, I always expect that our elected representatives will do the right thing to maintain a college-going culture for all and our national commitment to creating an educated, competitive workforce.

I have reached out to legislators with as much information as possible about the potential impacts of these cuts. We have welcomed them in our “home,” hosting delegates from across the state on two of our campuses during the recent Valley Legislative Tour.

We are also working to renew our commitment to faculty and staff who faithfully serve Texas community colleges. We know a community college is only as good as its faculty and staff. We are listening to the voices and welcoming their innovations and thoughts that can help us weather this fiscal storm.

But the most important concern we are addressing is assuring our students, faculty and staff that no matter the outcome, we will do everything possible to meet their needs. Student learning is the college’s number one priority, and the priority of a nation that wants to continue to be a world leader. The lack of funding higher education institutions are facing in Texas goes against every roadmap laid out for us by the rest of the nation.

STC was created to provide affordable access to higher education for an educationally underserved population. Although difficult times no doubt lie ahead, South Texas College will work with all its partners at all levels of education to continue our history of providing an excellent education at an affordable price.

Shirley A. Reed has served as the president of South Texas College since its establishment in 1993. She can be reached at sareed@southtexascollege.edu.

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