Invest more in education

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A past teacher of mine opened her class by comparing learning math to building a wall out of bricks. Every year, a certain number of bricks, representing concepts and skills, were supposed to be added to the structure. It was possible, she explained, to miss a few here and there and to have the structure remain solid. Miss too many, and the wall would collapse. I think she meant to suggest that we should all stay awake during class, but I could not help but recall her analogy in the context of measuring UT Austin’s “efficiency” as an institution.

Debating how to deal with a large budget shortfall during this legislative session, lawmakers pressured universities to be “more efficient,” often measured in terms of cost per student per degree or in graduation rates. In February, Gov. Rick Perry urged Texas universities to respond to lower levels of state funding by improving their operational efficiencies and not by raising tuition. One of his widely publicized proposals challenged university leaders to create bachelor’s degree programs costing less than $10,000. More recently, several high-profile studies have been released deriding the low average teaching loads of professors and the “inefficiency” created by academic research at UT and Texas A&M. Solutions proposed by groups such as the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and the Texas Public Policy Foundation generally include some combination of putting more professors in the classroom and using technology to decrease costs.

Largely absent from this debate has been the pivotal role that college readiness plays in determining how “efficiently” a university’s teaching operation can be. In Texas, students at the top of their respective high school classes are offered automatic admission to top state universities. They are attracted to our top-tier universities for good reason. Yet they often enter at different levels of readiness, especially in math and the sciences, depending on no other factor than where they went to school.

It is interesting to note the debate surrounding the other part of public education in Texas: state funding for primary and secondary education. While lawmakers criticize UT and other universities for being “inefficient,” they, with the other hand, directly undermine that very metric by refusing to fund public schools in Texas at adequate levels. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, felt strongly enough about the issue in May to launch a filibuster and force a special session to consider it. Yet the Legislature seems to have decided to not fund public schools at the levels necessary to keep pace with rapidly increasing enrollment.

If public schools in Texas do not have the funding necessary to teach high-level courses, the cost of teaching the material will not disappear. A chemistry student needs to learn calculus at some point. Lower quality of education at the primary and secondary levels because of insufficient funding means the responsibility for teaching the material will flow upward until it can no longer: at university enrollment. In this sense, underfunding public schools does not save money. It merely shifts the burden of payment to one perhaps more politically palatable: students and parents instead of taxpayers more generally.

UT and other state universities are being placed in a situation where more is demanded of them but no more is given. To others outside the universities, areas such as academic research look like promising places to cut costs. If the university needs to teach more material, the thinking goes, why can’t the teachers just teach more? The value of research is called into question, and the trap is set. The solution, universities are told, is to simply increase teaching loads at the expense of research. But the choice is a false one.

Investing more in primary and secondary education is a real way to make our universities more “efficient” — a term I still refuse to accept, as it frames education improperly as a process that can — and should — be mechanized without endangering other important areas of universities’ missions. The fact remains that innovation in higher education does not have to mean stripping research budgets bare or flooding classrooms with the latest tech gadgets. Real innovation, strange as the word seems in this context, may be as simple as recognizing that learning is an incremental process. It takes time, and trying to rush it, no doubt losing countless bricks in the process, may ultimately mean a more-credentialed but less-educated workforce. Our universities are among our largest national assets. Before we decide they are broken, we should ensure that there is not a deeper cause for their apparent underperformance.