This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on 1/12/2013

In higher education, Texas’ struggles are America’s struggles. At the same time, the 83rd Legislature can make Texas’ solutions America’s solutions.

Texas is well-placed to build on existing strengths relative to other states in the areas of tuition costs, student loan indebtedness and civic education requirements. Moreover, our legislators and universities have committed to increasing graduation rates, online learning opportunities and accountability in public higher education.

This good work already begun provides a springboard to meet the serious challenges ahead. Like every state, Texas is fighting a two-front war, endeavoring simultaneously to restore not only affordability but also education quality. Over the past quarter-century, tuitions nationally have spiked 440 percent, twice the rate of health care increases. Struggling to keep pace, students have taken on historic debt. Total student loan debt approaches $1 trillion dollars, exceeding credit card debt.

Added to the affordability crunch is the deeper crisis of poor student learning. “Academically Adrift,” the landmark national study published in 2011, finds that, after four years in college, 36 percent of students show “small or empirically non-existent” gains in foundational skills. Again, these dismal gains occurred after four years of college. This is a national tragedy. It constitutes the educational challenge of our time.

Happily, a growing number of Texans recognize this challenge and are advancing solutions. A healthy debate has ensued, in which opposing camps are each contributing pieces of the puzzle. For example, some pinpoint diminished support from the Legislature as the cause of skyrocketing tuitions, while others cite extraordinary university spending. Both have points. State funding, on an inflation-adjusted per-pupil basis, declined 17.3 percent during 2000-2010 in Texas. During the same period, tuitions rose 84.0 percent, albeit from a comparatively low base. The full picture is more complex than these two numbers alone suggest. In addition to declining state support and faster-than-the-CPI tuition increases, a cause of the fact that state funding now accounts for a smaller portion of university income is the growth in non-tuition revenues for universities, for example, federally funded research budgets.

In sum, Texas taxpayers appear to have played neither Scrooge nor Santa Claus. More likely, they have hunkered down in the face of the economy’s “new normal.” Universities no longer can expect the same levels of funding from debt-plagued students and deficit-haunted statehouses. The music of traditional support has ended, and all the players find themselves chairless. With students and legislatures tapped out, cost control becomes the sole path to college affordability.

To their credit, Texas universities and political leaders are marching to a different beat. Gov. Rick Perry trumpeted online learning and competency-based exams when, in 2011, he challenged Texas public universities (where tuition and fees then averaged $27,000) to create $10,000 degrees. Ten schools already have responded.

Texas’ $10,000 degree has quickly been raised as a model for consideration by policymakers in Wisconsin, Florida, Oklahoma, and California. It’s not difficult to see why: A recent Pew survey finds that 57 percent of prospective students deem a college degree not worth its current cost.

At the same time, the initiative has critics, whose objection is, “You get what you pay for.” Defenders rejoin that Texas schools simply are answering the call of a growing number of students, many nontraditional, desperate for a chance at the American dream. Nontraditional students now form the majority of postsecondary students. More than half are over 25; one-third work full-time; many must provide for families of their own. For this new majority, the best if not sole option is some variant of the $10,000 degree model.

Lower-cost degrees also address what a University of Pennsylvania study calls “huge inequities in Texas higher education.” Among those “25-34, 43 percent of whites hold at least an associate degree, compared to 28 percent of blacks and only 15 percent of Hispanics.” The enormity of this disparity crystallizes when we reflect on two additional facts: First, Hispanics and blacks constitute 50 percent of Texans, and second, the percentage of Hispanics in Texas K-12 today is 50 percent and growing.

This debate is healthy because, again, both sides supply a needed piece of the puzzle. Defenders are correct that innovation can enhance college affordability; the $10,000 degree is an idea whose time has come. Its critics, they argue, are looking down their noses at a train that has already left the station without them. But the critics are also correct to insist that the programs be academically rigorous.

Happily, through marrying these competing claims, we simultaneously can address the crisis detailed in “Academically Adrift.” To accomplish this, we can look to the University of Texas System, which for eight years has been administering the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure undergraduate learning. Deemed by many the gold standard of student learning tests, the CLA does not discriminate on the basis of entry scores, educational privilege or income. It measures what matters most: how much students actually increase their learning during college. Knowing the CLA’s reliability, the authors of “Academically Adrift” employed it as their measurement tool.

While the UT System comprises a number of diverse institutions, it recognizes that, although each school is unique, the capacities to think critically, engage in complex reasoning and write clearly — the skills measured by the CLA — are equally indispensable for all students. Therefore, it employs the CLA at all but one of the nine universities in its system. Measuring learning with the same tool may be as important as the particular tool itself. For over a decade, every public college and university in South Dakota has been required to measure student learning through the use of the same test, in their case, the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency. South Dakota, like UT, recognizes that different tests for different schools would muddy the waters, undermining the transparency required for programs to compare themselves to others and therewith improve themselves.

Therefore, the Legislature should mandate that all Texas public colleges and universities administer the CLA to students in their freshman and senior years. Doing so would also lend greater credence to our project to improve graduation rates. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey of employers revealed their fear that overemphasizing graduation rates might “incentivize” universities “to water down quality to hit their targets.” In the light of “Academically Adrift,” we need to demonstrate to prospective employers that increased graduation rates have not been purchased at the price of education quality. Marrying graduation rates with monitoring of student learning through the CLA would help validate our intention to do justice to both. Information for both should be made easily accessible online to students, parents, legislators and employers.

To increase transparency and accountability further, the Legislature should require all universities to include on transcripts not only the grade the student received for each class, but also the overall average grade for the class. This would tell prospective employers whether or not a given student’s high grade-point average was the product of exceptional work or of enrolling in what today’s students call “Mick” (for “Mickey Mouse”) courses. Such legislation is necessary because studies reveal that the time students spend studying has declined in the past half-century from 24 to 14 hours a week. Worse, grades during this period have, paradoxically, increased. Approximately 43 percent of all college grades today are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960. Inflated grades only serve to diminish the value of a college degree. Applying the sunlight of transparency will help reverse this.

Like grades, administration has become inflated. As documented in Benjamin Ginsberg’s book “The Fall of the Faculty,” “forty years ago, the efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staff. Since then, the number of full-time professors increased slightly more than 50 percent, while the number of administrators and administrative staffers increased 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.” Senior administrators have done particularly well under the new regime. From 1998 to 2003, deans and vice presidents saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent, and “by 2007, the median salary paid to a president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000.” In order that precious taxpayer dollars might be redirected to teaching and learning, the Legislature should mandate that all universities conduct feasibility studies for a 10 percent reduction in their administrative staff budgets.

Finally, a measure forwarded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would serve simultaneously to enhance both quality and affordability. The Legislature should require all public institutions to increase aggregate credit hours taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty by 10 percent. This would reverse a trend documented in a study conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which found that, “at research universities in the United States between 1988 and 2004, it is estimated that teaching loads fell 42 percent.” To accomplish this without harming faculty research, department chairs should assign low-publishing faculty one additional course annually.

While the challenges before us are doubtless formidable, these proposals go far to build on the momentum already established. And because Texas’ problems are America’s problems, Texas’ solutions can become the guiding star for the other 49 states.