University of North Texas

UT-Austin would like a medical school. Texas A&M has one, Baylor has one, the University of North Texas has one and Texas Tech has two — one in Lubbock and one in El Paso. The UT System already has several, one each in Houston, Dallas, Galveston and San Antonio. But not Austin.

UT is looking to change that. Plans are in the works for a new medical school in Austin, with associated clinics, medical research facilities and a teaching hospital serving Travis County. But to make all that happen, the University needs a steady, reliable source of funding, which has yet to materialize.

By UT’s estimates, construction and operation of the medical school for 12 years would cost about $4.1 billion. The Board of Regents has committed at least $25 million per year from the Available University Fund and an additional $5 million per year for the first eight years to help with equipment and other startup expenses. But that covers less than 10 percent of the expected total cost. To make up the difference, UT has cobbled together funding from a number of sources, including a possible $250 million for the proposed teaching hospital from the Seton Healthcare Family, which has partnered with UT in the past. But UT still needs about $35 million per year, and for that the University is turning to Travis County taxpayers.

On Nov. 6, Austinites will vote on Proposition 1, which, if approved, would institute a 63 percent increase on their property taxes for health care. This would raise the average Travis County resident’s property taxes by $107.40 in 2014. According to the University and Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district, this extra tax revenue will cover the remaining cost of the medical school.

The proposal also aims to secure additional funding from the federal government through a Medicaid waiver program created last year that provides $1.46 for every $1 invested in health care improvements for a community’s poor. According to Central Health, the $54 million from the tax increase would draw another $76 million from the feds.

The University justifies the tax increase by arguing that the Travis County voters footing the bill would see a significant return on their investment. “It’s important to remember that the tax revenue would be used to pay for health care — not research and not buildings,” said UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle.

Opponents of the tax increase believe that if UT wants to build a medical school, it should cover the cost itself. But the University’s problem is that its two main sources of revenue­­­ — endowments and appropriations from the Legislature — are not reliable enough to fund such a large-scale initiative.

Endowments are inherently unpredictable, as they are largely based on economic climate. The Legislature could provide steady funding if it wanted to, but it doesn’t always want to. “It is impossible to predict the will of the Legislature or the economic factors that influence both it and donors,” Doolittle said. “In order for this venture to be successful, the predictability of recurring funding is needed for this last piece, and we will not be able to move forward unless such funding is secured.” That’s why the University is looking to the tax increase to provide a steady revenue stream.

A new UT-Austin medical school would be highly beneficial to the city, the state and Texas’ flagship university. It’s unfortunate that the Legislature can no longer be relied on to fund such an advantageous initiative, and in light of that, a tax increase like Proposition 1 is probably the only viable option if UT-Austin is to come up with the money it needs.

Feeling hard-pressed to make sure that money materializes, UT’s Executive Vice President and Provost Steven Leslie put in his rather lengthy two cents, calling for the passage of Proposition 1 in an Oct. 10 email to faculty and staff. The email was then published in the Austin American-Statesman. “For us, this is a yes or no proposition,” Leslie wrote. “Without a complete and reliable source of new funding, we will not be able to start a medical school … A medical school would immediately complement our engineering, natural sciences, nursing, pharmacy, social work, and other programs, strengthening them individually as well as the University’s overall reputation.”

Leslie could not be reached for comment, as he was in China at the time of this writing. It remains to be seen whether Travis County voters will agree to raise their taxes and give UT the medical school it is asking for and if UT faculty and staff will respond positively or object to the University’s Executive VP telling them how to vote.

When they go to the polls, voters should take into account the lack of viable options for funding that UT-Austin faces. We can’t count on our endowment or on our Legislature, but we should be able to count on our community. 

Enrollment at public universities is increasing across Texas, not just at UT-Austin.

Texas A&M University, the University of North Texas, Texas State University, Texas Tech University and the University of Houston all saw increased enrollments this year. This is the 15th consecutive year Texas State’s and the fourth consecutive year Texas Tech’s enrollments have increased.

Texas Tech admissions director Ethan Logan said the downturn in the national economy has contributed to statewide increased enrollment, among other factors.

“Generally, when you have a downturn in the economy you have an upturn in enrollment,” Logan said. “The economy starts to depress, and there are a lot of folks who want to go to college to improve the opportunity to get a job and make a good wage.”

UT-Austin admitted 8,092 first-year students this fall, which is a 13.2-percent increase from last year and its largest in history. UT’s total enrollment is the second largest in the school’s history at 52,213.

The University did not plan to admit so many students this year. Every year, the University offers admissions assuming that some students will decline admissions offers. More students than anticipated accepted admission offers.

While UT faced problems with its increased enrollment, including housing issues, other institutions were expecting or working for their increase.

Texas A&M’s total enrollment has reached more than 50,000. This is the first time A&M has passed the 50,000-student milestone.

In an email, Texas A&M spokesperson Jason Cook said the large student body has not caused the university any problems.

“University officials here anticipated the increases and planned accordingly, so the effects of the larger student body have been manageable,” Cook said.

Fall 2012 marked the 15th consecutive year Texas State has set a new record for its enrollment. Total enrollment was at 34,229, up from 34,113 last year. Texas State saw its second largest incoming freshman class at 4,251 students.

Texas Tech has also seen a steady increase in its enrollment figures for multiple years. This is the fourth consecutive year of increased enrollment. Logan said Tech has been working on increasing its enrollment since 2008. He said the university’s goal is to reach 40,000 students by 2020.

Logan said the increase is designed to be gradual so that Texas Tech’s resources are not taxed.

“At this point we have not reached a critical increase that has challenged the resources of our institution,” Logan said. “We are trying to be conservative in the effort in growing the enrollment.”

He said the university is responding to the steady increase with new resources. For example, Texas Tech opened a new residential hall this year.

University of North Texas saw a 9.2-percent increase in its first-year enrollment to 4,444 students.

The University of Houston also saw an increase in its total enrollment but a decrease in first-year students.

Despite enrollment increases in many Texas universities, the U.S. Department of Education released a report Tuesday that found the number of undergraduates in the country dropped from 18.65 million students in 2010 to 18.62 million students in 2011.

Printed on Wednesday, October 10, 2012 as: Enrollment increases across Texas

When you find yourself in a hole, you quit digging. When a public university is about to spend millions on an undertaking that won’t benefit Texans, it’s time for the metaphorical shovel to be put aside.

In this case, the hole belongs to the University of North Texas who for the last three years has been working to found a new law school at their satellite campus in downtown Dallas. The proposed school, which would be the 10th law school in the state, announced last week that U.S. District Court Judge Royal Furgeson could be serving as its first dean.

The school’s opening has already been significantly delayed. The inaugural class was originally slated to begin in the fall of 2011, but that date was postponed until fall 2012. That opening has since been pushed back another year to fall 2013. Given the current state of the legal market, coupled with cuts to funding for higher education, the school’s opening should continue to be delayed — if not scrapped altogether.

The current recession has hit the legal industry especially hard. Large law firms around the country have scaled back on hiring new associates and are downsizing internally, creating a surplus of unemployed lawyers. Recent graduates have been hard hit; according to the American Bar Association, only 68 percent of law school graduates from the class of 2010 were employed in jobs requiring bar passage. That statistic reflects a continued downward trend from 70 percent in 2009 and 74 percent in 2008.

Furthermore, hiring out of law schools is heavily based on a school’s reputation. Generally, newer law schools are ranked lower and subsequently have poorer employment statistics. Students at forth-tier law schools — the level of ranking by US News where the new UNT school would most likely start — have even lower employment averages.

Proponents of a UNT law school worked for a decade until getting approval from the state Legislature in 2009 to construct the school. But the legal market of the early 2000s was vastly different from today’s. The employment data in 1999 may have justified adding another law school to the DFW metroplex, but today that is just not the case.

In addition to the lack of employment opportunities is the enormous cost of a legal education; tuition at UT School of Law is currently $32,010 per year for in-state residents and $47,532 for non-residents and will most likely rise again next year.

And while Texas has fared better than most states during the recession, the state’s legal market is not robust enough to support an additional, new class of lawyers every year. Charles Cantu, the dean of St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio told San Antonio News-Express last year, “On the average, [Texas] licenses about 2,000 new lawyers every year, and all of our economic indicators at this point indicate the market is not absorbing all of those people.” Founding a new law school produces a catch-22 of sorts. To provide a quality legal education, it would be necessary for UNT to invest heavily to recruit quality professors and build an administrative infrastructure. Yet, to do so requires copious financial resources, which in turn spurs the extremely high tuition costs that are common at nearly every law school in the country.

Proponents of the potential law school have made its status as a public institution a major selling point. It’s true that public law schools offer a more affordable route for Texans. Currently, four of the nine law schools in Texas are public schools, and their average tuition is only $15,515 compared to $27,634 for private Texas law schools.

However, the fact that $15,000 is considered “affordable” simply highlights the outrageous costs of a legal education today. Perhaps UNT’s new school could offer a significantly lower tuition rate, thereby undercutting the bloated tuitions required by other Texas law schools. Yet doing so would handicap the new school’s ability to offer a high-quality education in return, thereby making it even more difficult for graduates to find jobs.

There’s no reason to think that the first crop of UNT Law graduates wouldn’t face the same circumstaces that their peers around the country are currently grappling with. The combination of poor job prospects, rising tuition costs, student loan debt and the continued proliferation of law schools — 17 new law schools have been accredited in the last decade — has made law school a losing bet for many Americans

Given those dire straits, now is not the time to experiment with a “budget” law school propped up by taxpayer monies.

UNT is a great school located in strong job market. But at a time when fiscal resources are scarce, it simply doesn’t make sense to invest so heavily in a project that promises so little a return on that investment. There are more worthy objectives, such as UNT’s mission to become the fourth Tier One research university in the state.

Another law school in the DFW metroplex may have been a good idea 10 years ago. Today it isn’t and should be tabled indefinitely.