In a legislative session dominated by public school finance reform at the PK-12 level, institutions of higher education flew under the radar. With the 86th legislative session over, it doesn’t appear that new laws will have an outsize impact on the way San Antonio’s public universities and Alamo Colleges operate over the next biennium.
Perhaps the most notable effect of the legislative session is what didn’t pass: lawmakers did not approve new tuition revenue bonds, which would have been used to fund growth and new facilities on Texas A&M University-San Antonio’s and University of Texas at San Antonio’s campuses.
While an initiative for the bonds made ground in the Texas House, the Senate companion, Senate Bill 505, failed to make progress over the past several months, getting stuck in the Senate Higher Education Committee, where the committee failed to take any action.
Within the bill, UTSA included a request for $126.3 million for the construction of a College of Business building at the downtown campus. Texas A&M-San Antonio asked for $53 million to fund the construction of an academic and library building.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio also requested $82 million to construct the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases building.
These asks, along with requests from public universities across the state, were all unsuccessful.
UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said there was no certainty that the bonds would pass, and he and other university presidents knew that from the beginning of the session.
Across the state, there was close to $4 billion in requests for about 70 specific projects.
“Everyone in Texas was asking for these,” Eighmy said. “The fact that the Senate did not take that up speaks to their fiscal conservatism, and we knew there was a chance that would be the case.”
UTSA officials are now exploring two other ways to fund the College of Business expansion, but Eighmy said the school may still try for a tuition revenue bond next session for the expansion or other projects. Eighmy declined to specify the other funding mechanisms. The tuition revenue bonds failing to pass won’t be an impediment to the university’s path forward, the UTSA president added.
San Antonio’s public universities did benefit from a boost in formula funding. UTSA saw an increase of $26.1 million or 13.6 percent over the last 2018-19 biennium. Texas A&M San Antonio received an increase of $5.7 million, an increase of 26 percent.
Describing this session as very positive for UTSA, Eighmy said his school would use the extra funds strategically to finance student success initiatives and support for faculty.
Texas A&M-San Antonio officials plan to use their increase to expand academic program offerings and look into new degree programs.
The school also received $3 million in expansion funding, which will be used to provide a growing student population. In the coming years, however, expansion funding is expected to decline by 25 percent increments per biennium until phased out entirely or once the school reaches 6,000 full-time students.
President Cynthia Teniente-Matson wrote to the university community that she anticipates TAMU-SA will reach this 6,000 number before the end of the next biennium, so a loss of funding could present a real concern.
“During the next two years, we will address that concern by continuing our efforts to fully restore expansion funding or revisit the [6,000 full-time student] cap,” Teniente-Matson wrote in an e-mail.
A bill that had not been signed as of Friday would allow TAMU-SA to move forward with an athletics program. If Abbott approves or allows the bill to become law without his signature, the school must next seek approval for an athletics program from the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, with the eventual goal of having sports start on campus in fall 2020. The university is currently planning for programs in women’s softball, men’s golf, and women’s and men’s soccer.
Working in partnership, UTSA, Texas A&M-San Antonio, and Alamo Colleges secured $3.5 million to create the Bexar County Foster Youth Initiative. The new initiative will enhance services and support for foster youth looking to attend college and provide continued support for current students who were previously in foster care.
UTSA also received funds for improvements to its research enterprises. One of eight emerging research universities included in the funding initiative, UTSA secured $10.4 million to support faculty development, research equipment acquisition, laboratory upgrades, student fellowships, and proposal developments.
Another initiative, called the Texas Research Incentive Program, encourages private philanthropic support for research through matching funds. The endeavor puts $35 million into a pool for the eight identified emerging research universities, including UTSA, to support future matching gifts. A recent $15 million donation from Graham Weston to fund the School of Data Science could qualify for these matching funds, Eighmy said Friday.
Alamo Colleges also benefited from a boost in funding. The community college district took away $5.8 million more for the next biennium than it had the last.
Chancellor Mike Flores said the schools would use this to fully stand up advocacy centers at each of the five campuses with food banks, clothing closets, federal benefit application help, and financial coaching services. Alamo Colleges also plans to use the money for an enrollment coach model, which would match each applying student with a contact to walk them through the admissions process.
“We want to … invest in wraparound services and the enrollment coaching model in preparation for bringing more students in and perhaps students who are going to require more support,” Flores said. “This will help set the stage for all of our students, but also [it will help us] be mindful of Alamo Promise.”
Alamo Promise is a program under development that could potentially offer free Alamo Colleges tuition to graduating Bexar County high school seniors. Some other versions of this model include a success coach from the community college system who connects with students when they are still in high school.
Leaders with the community college system were also pleased to see a legislative reform that improves the transfer of credits between colleges. Alamo Colleges, along with Austin Community College and about 20 other nearby public and private institutions, produce transfer guides that show a prospective student which courses they should take at a community college for specific four-year degrees.
A new law will require universities to report to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board any community college courses that don’t transfer. The goal is to cut down on the number of hours students take, and pay for, that don’t end up counting to their degree, Flores said.
Increased funding and improved transferability were two items on Alamo Colleges’ legislative agenda, set before the session began.