Texas leaders spent months this year talking about cutting funds for education and financial aid, while Gov. Rick Perry refused to raise taxes or tap the rainy-day fund.
Public colleges were told to send letters to students and parents, warning them not to count on state grants for the next two years. Well, people got the message.
For the first time in more than a decade, fall enrollment declined at the University of North Texas, the area's largest four-year public college. The second-largest, the University of Texas at Arlington, reported a gain of just 446 students -- less than one-tenth the increase of the previous year.
Meanwhile, students poured into local community colleges, where tuition is as much as 80 percent lower than at the four-year public schools. Tarrant County College added 7,000 students this fall, and Dallas County College added 8,663, according to preliminary enrollment figures released last week by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
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It's risky to draw too many conclusions from one year of data. Enrollments soared statewide in 2009 and 2010, because recessions always prompt more students to return to school. UTA also launched an aggressive online program that boosted enrollment significantly.
That created tall comparisons. At UTA, where the school is in the midst of a building boom, enrollment grew 12 percent two years ago and 17 percent more last year. It's tough to keep topping such numbers, except that Texas has a growing population and leaders keep saying that more residents must get a college education.
That's the right thought, but lawmakers consistently reduce state support, which drives up tuition. And early last summer, they slashed state grants by $140 million after stoking fears of much deeper cuts.
"We're trying to get out in front of this as best we can and tell students that there's still a lot of financial aid available," UTA Provost Ron Elsenbaumer said.
Oddly enough, UTA students are getting more financial aid this year than last. Even state grants, which were reduced by 15 percent statewide, totaled $500,000 more in Arlington this fall. That's because enrollment is a key factor in the state aid formula, and UTA's growing population has kept the money flowing.
That's not likely to continue, not without Austin having a change of heart on financial aid. UTA students borrowed $10 million more this year, and community colleges offer a money-saving alternative.
In Denton, UNT's enrollment fell by 345, a decline of just less than 1 percent. That was after adding almost 1,300 last year.
"We saw some 'melt' in freshman and sophomore transfers," Troy Johnson said, referring to students who had been accepted at UNT but stayed away.
UNT cut state grants to its full-time students by about $1,800 this year and lost funding for a state loan program. Johnson hasn't quantified the effect on enrollment, but he suspects there's been one.
"There was such a to-do about cuts in aid programs that it was hard for students to miss it," said Johnson, vice provost for enrollment.
He believes that head counts may fall at UNT for a good reason, not just because applicants are changing their minds. Last spring, the college graduated 625 more students than the previous year, Johnson said. As more students complete their degrees sooner -- and he said they're taking more hours -- that will put some downward pressure on total enrollment.
UNT's freshman class also had 300 more students this year, after an increase of 200 the year before, he added. That indicates that many traditional students were undeterred by the aid cuts.
And if they're stretching dollars further, what's the problem? Community colleges are a vital part of the system, for both older students and those angling to pick up core credits (for much less) and then transfer.
The trade-off is the experience of a four-year residential college. Being with the same cohort, in the same place, helps some students focus and stay motivated. Many build networks with friends and professors that offer lifelong benefits.
But there are many ways to get an education, and the need in Texas is so great that it can use every one of them (including Perry's proposal for a $10,000 degree). This fall, 62,000 additional students enrolled in Texas colleges, a 4.3 percent increase, the higher education board reported.
That growth rate is on par with the average for the past decade, before enrollments soared. In 2009, Texas added 122,000 students, and last year, almost 85,000.
"Enrollment isn't always going to grow like that," said Sandy Baum, an economist and independent analyst for the College Board, which tracks trends in higher education. "Colleges are cyclical businesses, too. A lot of people who were on the fence have jumped in already."
In Texas, the challenge is to reach many students, especially minorities, who hadn't considered the college path. The state has emphasized the value of college to middle school students for more than half a decade, and rising enrollment shows progress.
But higher tuition, more student debt and less state aid tell another story. At UTA, almost 3 in 4 students also hold a job, so the bottom line is top of mind.
"We encourage them to consider the rest of their life and career," said UTA's Elsenbaumer. "Decisions about college shouldn't be shortsighted."
If only Texas lawmakers took the long-term view, too.
Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7821