Finding ways to lower the costs of college while expanding higher education and career paths for Texas residents will have to remain a priority for Texas, state legislators said Monday in a forum at Baylor University.
State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, shared viewpoints on the state of higher education during the hourlong forum, held at Baylor’s Bill Daniel Student Center.
About 25 students attended the intimate program, which was organized by Baylor College Republicans and Baylor Democrats.
Branch, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, said he routinely hears students report that they often forgo buying textbooks for classes because the materials are so expensive.
He suggests that colleges may be able to make more content available online or switch to digital textbooks, which are generally cheaper.
“As technology becomes so pervasive in our culture and becomes a larger part of the education piece, I think that there’s opportunities for some decreased costs,” Branch said. “The future of higher education involves a lot of challenges, and one of these is access and therefore trying to bring the costs down while keeping the quality up.”
Watson speculated that limited capacity at public colleges and universities in the state for the greater numbers of students seeking higher education may be forcing tuition costs to rise.
But Watson also noted that top state universities are spending more money trying to recruit top faculty and researchers in competing for high-performing students and raising the rigor of their academic programs.
“The idea that every school ought to be the same way, in my opinion, that shouldn’t be,” said Watson, who received both his bachelor’s and law degrees from Baylor. “Different universities are going to serve in different ways, so while you might have an opportunity for a $10,000 degree in some places, it may not work in other places. . . . We need to recognize that one size probably shouldn’t fit all.”
The two legislators sounded off on a variety of topics with moderator Karla Leeper, Baylor’s vice president for executive affairs and a communications studies professor. Both lawmakers agreed on the need to increase funding for the Texas Equalization Grant program, which helps subsidize tuition costs for Texas high school students who attend private universities in the state.
Branch said the program generally awards students between $2,000 and $5,000 in grants per school year.
Watson said funding for the program was increased last year during the 83rd legislative session, but the higher appropriations did not compensate for drastic cuts legislators made in 2011.
But state Comptroller Susan B. Combs has indicated that the state’s surplus revenue may be double original estimates for the 2015 biennium, which could allow lawmakers to boost support for programs that lost funding.
But the legislators disagreed on the issue of allowing concealed carry on college campuses.
A measure gained support by the House, but was blocked from being considered in the Senate.
Branch, who is running for attorney general, said he would want new college concealed carry legislation introduced during the 84th legislative session, but Watson said he thinks allowing guns on college campuses might cause more harm than good in a crisis situation.
“I think we can be strongly in favor of the Second Amendment, and we can be strongly in favor of allowing people to carry weapons for safety, but there should be certain limitations,” Watson said.
Branch argued that few college-age students have concealed carry permits, so a bill would not necessarily mean campuses suddenly would be flooded with guns.
More than 600 Baylor students signed a petition last year organized by Baylor’s Young Conservatives in support of concealed carry legislation, but the university’s administration has said it would oppose allowing guns on campus.
As a private university, Baylor would not have to comply with the measure if it did pass.
The duo also shared criticism of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., who Watson said are unable to collaborate successfully on issues because they have “lost room for any moderate thought” in waging partisan political fights.