Editor’s note: Texas State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) serves as chair of the House Higher Education Committee. He spoke with Daily Texan associate editor Pete Stroud about the diminished higher education budget, outcomes-based funding and how he hopes the 83rd Legislature will anticipate the outcome of the pending U.S. Supreme Court Fisher decision. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Daily Texan: How does this session’s planned budget for UT differ from recent years?
Dan Branch: If you look at just the general revenue appropriated funds, the base budget is a little bit less than two years ago. Because it’s a starting point, I think there are plenty of opportunities for changes to the base budget, so I think it would be premature to somehow predict that UT is going to do much better or much worse or even the same ... by the time we get to late May.
DT: Why have you pushed for outcomes-based funding?
DB: [We need] to put a little more incentive on completion rather than just enrollment. Now, we incentivize enrollment very much in the process, and my goal is to put a little more balance in that and have some incentives on the back end, where we need to do better ... In fact, I was really pleased that [UT President Bill] Powers sort of laid down the gauntlet for all of our four-year universities by making a bold prediction that the 2012 fall entering class would be held accountable to graduate at 70 percent in four years.
DT: You filed a bill that would require universities to offer fixed, four-year tuition plans. If passed, how would your bill make college more affordable?
DB: It gives certainty to students and parents, and any funders of higher ed — you know that if your student is one that’s interested in getting in and out in four years you’ve got a fixed price. My legislation doesn’t make it mandatory that that be the only price a school can offer. What it calls for is that each public university will give the option. So you can either buy higher education by the semester or year, as we price it today in most places, or you could buy it for eight semesters or four years at a fixed price. And obviously if you do that there’s going to be a bit of a premium built in on the front end because you know you’re going to likely get a discount on the back end because you’re getting a fixed price over four years. It’s also designed to encourage people to get in and get out ... and that’s the best way to keep your costs down ... And if you’re getting financial aid, you free up that financial aid for the next student.
DT: How will the Legislature as a whole and your committee specifically react if the state wins or loses Fisher v. UT?
DB: We anticipate based on past history that the Supreme Court will rule probably in the late spring and therefore to be prudent, I anticipate introducing legislation to preserve the Top Ten Percent Reforms ... because in the reform package that we passed in 2009 ... was an amendment that got added to the bill that said that if there was a change in admissions policy as a result of a court ruling, all the reforms would go away. It was a sort of killer amendment. And my argument would be that it would now be timely to remove that portion of the reform package from statute, because ... if [UT’s race-influenced admissions] were to be struck down by the Supreme Court, then all the Top Ten Percent reforms would fall and we would have chaos in 2014 before we come back into session ... To me it makes much more sense to take that piece out of the statute and anticipate that there could be a ruling that could affect UT’s admissions, and if it does, then we would have smoothed out any risk of this sort of chaos in 2014. And those who want to revisit the reforms, they would have the opportunity in the 2015 legislative session to [do so]... But we can do that in a way that’s orderly, and not somehow that would just sort of pull the rug out from under UT because we had a Supreme Court ruling that all of a sudden, because of this amendment from 2009, rips out all of the reforms — and there would be no governor at all on the Top Ten Percent rule, which is what we had in place before 2009. There was nothing in law to prevent 30,000 students from having an automatic right in the state of Texas to come to UT-Austin. And as you know, the UT-Austin entering class last year was a little over 8,000 students, and we would not have a way to take on that sort of capacity if all the reforms were to go away ... I think at a minimum, whether you’re rural, urban, right of center, left of center, we can all agree that we shouldn’t do something that would unintentionally harm UT and disrupt its admissions process while we weren’t in session and able to address it.