Laundering our Higher Ed Dollars

texasstatecapitolWhen I was working on my PhD at the University of North Texas, a group of us headed down to Austin to visit with our legislators regarding tuition waivers for teaching assistants. At Texas public universities, teaching assistants cannot receive tuition waivers or tuition reimbursements. At the time, tuition costs for a full-time PhD student ran around $900. Coincidentally, my monthly salary was around $900 and I was paid over 9 months. Like the share cropper of old, we were paying a month’s salary to the company store just for the privilege of teaching large undergraduate classes. During our testimony, we weren’t asking for full tuition waiver. Basically, we argued that we should get a tuition break equivalent to the amount we generated minus the amount it cost to take the PhD class.

As a teacher, I was generating income for the school (credit hour production) and then turning around and paying for doing so. The school was able to take funds from the state dedicated for salary and get that money back in tuition. Those tuition dollars could be spent differently. (University funding is restricted based on the type of funds allocated.) On the street, we call that money laundering–they pay me with one type of money so that I can pay them and then they can spend the money differently.

During our visit to Austin, I was struck by two things:1) the higher education legislative aids were all from UT or A&M and they were all my age. In other words, the people doing research and advising our state legislators were all very recent college undergraduates from two flagship universities. More to the point, their expertise was, as far as we could tell, based solely on their experience. One of them, and I am not making this up, wanted to regulate faculty office hours because he had a professor who drank whiskey out of a coffee cup during class. (It didn’t make sense when he said it either.) And 2) testifying before the legislative sub-committee is a joke. Throughout our testimony, legislators entered, exited, slept, snored, wrote letters, doodled, day-dreamed (all those pre-texting ways to waste time during a meeting)–the only person who stayed the entire time was the chair of the committee. It was clear their minds were made up before we ever got there. Our presence was symbolic.

My experience almost 20 years ago is fresh on my mind as we enter another legislative session where higher education is high on the agenda. In a state that prides itself on a laissez-faire attitude (at least in theory), the past 20 years have brought more government regulation and intrusion than at any other time in history. Such regulation might seem warranted if government funding was high. Ironically, though, our state “funded” institutions of higher learning have lost money every legislative session yet the demands on higher education have increased every year. Even though we receive less money, the state wants more accountability. Worse yet, our legislators have consistently seemed either incapable or unwilling to do the difficult work to understand how universities work and how we might best fund a university.

I don’t want to imply that there are simple solutions or that legislative ignorance is restricted to higher education. Our state legislators get paid about $12.90 an hour and have to dedicate 140 days a year away from home and work. Again, like our US government legislators, we get what we pay for, and we are paying such a meager amount that only a select few folks can afford to run for state office. We also are asking unprepared and unqualified folks to make decisions in a tough environment.

But, I am heartened and oddly optimistic that things might change this session. Rep. Dan Branch (Republican) notes “that higher-education investments typically draw returns many times over. ‘We need to keep up with student growth. … We also need to make sure that we have the tools and equipment in place for our students.’” That’s a good sign. Perhaps our legislators are finally realizing that you can’t keep cutting and cutting and expect the same results. In the 1980s, when I went to college, the state paid about 80% of my costs. Next year when my son goes to college, the state will pay less than 40%. While this will be a burden for us, we’ll manage. Between scholarships, financial aid, student loans, work, and ramen noodles, he’ll go off to college. At Angelo State, though, 80% of our students are on financial aid and a majority of our students are first generation, first time students. In other words, a majority of our students are at-risk and we must have resources to offer them the tools to complete a degree.

Perhaps, and I’ll let my inner Mr. Sunshine come through, our legislators will recognize that we invest in the future by fully funding education. The dollars we spend today will come back to the state in the future. That’s a money laundering I can support.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

4 Responses to Laundering our Higher Ed Dollars

  1. Joyce says:

    While we have not relaxed our minimum admission standards, our state is now considering performance-based funding which would reward universities based on, among other factors, retention of first-time-in-college students. THAT gives me chills as I contemplate the possible unintended consequences of such a measure. I can envision the pressure to retain students at all costs spilling over into grading practices.

  2. Joyce says:

    Ooops…I meant to say, “even start eyeing which programs ot cut.” Interruptions!

  3. Joyce says:

    My university has received a 47% reduction to our operating budget over the past five years, and yet our student body has grown by at least 25%. An institution can only tighten its belt and become more efficient for so long before it must cut critical personnel and services, and then start eyeing . And yet we are expected to continue to serve the needs of the region.

    It is deeply frustrating to be on the receiving end of what I perceive to be contempt by our state legislature. I hope it all works out for you in Texas. In Florida, we are just trying to hold our own!

    • John Wegner says:

      My early morning optimism only lasts until about lunch. At the beginning of each fiscal year, now, I have the office coordinator pull 10% of our budget aside. By the spring, we will be asked to give that amount back. When you start adding 10% each year over 3 years. . . That’s real money. What I find equally troubling, of course, is the 25% increase is not, I’ll bet, filled with high performing students. The number of students we admit who are developmental grows every year. I’m glad we open our doors and give them a shot, but at-risk students require more funding, not less. Good luck.

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