Texas University Breaking Ties With Community College

Ask Texas Southmost College trustee Adela Garza about her school losing its longtime, wealthier university partner—University of Texas at Brownsville—and she is relieved, even proud. Praising the pending split, Garza expects tuition will fall and educators will be able to focus on preparing people for the workforce.

On the other hand, if one asks TSC trustee David Oliveira his opinion, he says the breakup between the community college and upper-division UTB will be “one of the greatest tragedies” his hometown might ever endure. “I don’t see any way we can maintain the current level of services without raising either tuition or taxes or both.”

Whether either trustee’s assessment is accurate remains to be seen. What is known is that TSC, which, along with UTB, serves one of the most impoverished areas of the country, are on a path fraught with financial risk and uncertainty. As UTB cuts ties with TSC, the outcome is expected to greatly affect a city of 176,000 whose 2009 per capita income was less than $14,000 annually.

The split will mark the official end of an unusual 20-year partnership between TSC and the University of Texas system that, for the first time, ushered a four-year university education into overwhelmingly Latino Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas. For many years, residents had clamored for the opportunity to earn bachelor’s degrees without having to commute more than an hour to the nearest university.

However, the partnership is dissolving amid unresolved, long-running fiscal disputes between UT and TSC, as well as power struggles between two governing boards. At times, both governing boards have each tried to politically one-up the other. In recent years, the fracas has seen TSC demand more state monies for its role in the partnership and UT officials trying to swallow community college assets at the expense of taxpayers in Brownsville where about 29 percent of families live below the poverty level.

Some observers wonder whether the quality of local higher education will suffer once UTB and TSC split.

“Things can work out for both schools, but everyone is better off if there’s a high level of cooperation,” says Dr. Raymund Paredes, Texas higher education commissioner. “Too many south Texans need both schools.”

Since the early 1990s, UTB and TSC have formed a community university of sorts known as UTB/TSC in which academics and most other operations were combined and consolidated.

As partners to this day, the schools share the same faculty members, who teach many types of students in their courses, a single campus in which associate-degree seekers and bachelor-degree seekers often take the same courses together, and one president—in Dr. Juliet García and her administration. Such a structure has resulted in millions in cost savings. Nonetheless, UTB is governed by the UT System board of regents and TSC by trustees such as Oliveira and Garza who are elected by residents of the local tax district.

The partnership calls for open admission to all first-time freshmen and first-time upper-division undergraduates, so UTB/TSC hasn’t required the applications typical at most other universities. Instead, students matriculate seamlessly through UTB/TSC. A student pursuing a bachelor’s degree can earn it in four years. But if a student earns an associate’s degree and wishes to continue toward a bachelor’s, he can do so by merely re-enrolling at UTB/TSC without needing to apply for admission.

This differs from universities that have articulation agreements with community colleges in which the former accepts defined sets of academic credit from the latter in order to improve transfer rates of community college graduates. At UTB/TSC, there are no barriers to transferring community college credits.

“That’s the greatest aspect of the UTB/TSC partnership, because, historically, community college transfer rates around here have been low,” says Dr. Miguel Nevárez, president emeritus of UT-Pan American in Edinburg, which is about 70 miles northwest of Brownsville.

Established in 1926, TSC (the school has undergone a few name changes since then) was the state’s second community college and first higher education institution in the bi-national region. After World War II, it moved into its current home, a decommissioned Army post on the Rio Grande banks and minutes from the Mexican border.

Over the years, Brownsville residents hungry for a four-year university made their wishes known to educators and legislators, contending that Edinburg was too far a commute. By 1973, Pan American University opened a center at TSC providing upper-level and graduate courses so popular that the university, which joined the UT System in 1989, decided to spin off its branch in 1991 into its own entity. The latter was re-named UTB. State lawmakers approved a quasi-merger with TSC in which UTB paid rent based on state appropriations, and the UT board of regents became managing partner of UTB/TSC while TSC trustees continued managing assets of the community college district.

Since then, more than 32,000 degrees and certificates have been awarded, more than 70 degree programs have been added, and the faculty has more than doubled. More than 85 percent of students are bilingual, Latino and first-generation college-goers from Brownsville and the surrounding county.

Still, some TSC trustees complained of $10 million in unpaid rent because of state funding shortfalls during bad economic times. So, in 2009—when García was lauded as one of Time magazine’s “10 Best College Presidents” for UTB/TSC accomplishments—lawmakers told governing boards and school officials to resolve the back-rent problem by 2011. But a task force of UTB/TSC employees examined the partnership as a whole and considered different partnership structures because student enrollment and academic programs were growing so rapidly.

Last year, the task force recommended that both schools merge into a single legal entity governed and managed by UT regents, with the schools transferring assets into that entity and taxes would still be collected from property owners in the TSC district. However, additional state funds were not guaranteed. By the fall, the TSC board rejected the proposal.

“That didn’t make sense,” TSC trustee Trey Mendez says of the task force recommendation. “That’s like getting a salary and someone else telling you how to spend it.”

By November, the UT regents voted unanimously to scrap the partnership, no longer willing to wait on TSC. Few specifics were stated, except that regents believed “the current partnership can no longer be sustained (and was) not the best model to sustain excellence in the future.”

Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System, declined a Diverse interview request. But he wrote TSC board Chairman Francisco “Kiko” Rendon immediately after the regents’ vote saying he was “truly disappointed” by the lack of a new partnership agreement. The results of the vote and the financial implications sent TSC trustees reeling. The 2011 UTB/TSC budget was $167 million; the TSC share made up about $60 million.

“I don’t see how we can afford to maintain and insure buildings, pay utilities and offer classes all on our own,” says Oliveira, who along with the other six trustees took issue with last year’s proposed new partnership. During the two-decade arrangement, the campus also saw construction of athletics facilities, a student union and a 5,700-square-foot performing arts center—buildings that TSC perhaps would not have built without UTB.

UT System officials, who oversee 15 institutions with budgets totaling $12.5 billion, have since tried reconciling with TSC—on condition that it acquire its assets outright. In a January 21 letter to Rendon, Cigarroa said TSC could still fully merge with UTB into “a single institution”—despite the UT regents’ November vote—but the deal entailed UTB receiving TSC “assets as a gift” or leasing them “on a no-cost basis and the local taxing district would be phased out.”

Within weeks, TSC trustees voted 4-3 to break up with UTB, with Oliveira in the minority and Rendon, Mendez and Garza prevailing. At Diverse’s deadline, trustees were interviewing candidates for TSC president—a position nonexistent since the 1991 partnership was inked—and teams of consultants and lawyers were divvying up UTB/TSC faculty, resources and even deciding who would get custody of the scorpion mascot.

Teams also were deciphering who owned what properties, a task complicated by state monies having rehabilitated, restored and maintained TSC buildings in larger amounts than if the UT System had not established a presence in Brownsville and leveraged its reputation to help secure such funds. So far, deliberations have hardly affected daily classes and campus operations. Accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools for the UTB/TSC partnership expires in August 2015, and TSC and UTB have agreed to split no later than that date. Neither UTB nor TSC has its own accreditation, so each is scrambling to obtain it.

García declined to be interviewed for this article. Former TSC trustee Mary Rose Cardenas, who was among those tapping García when the partnership was birthed and for whom a campus building is named, says her longtime friend is “trying to remain civil” to everyone involved.

Paredes is optimistic following a recent talk with García. “I’m encouraged by her attitude. I’m not alarmed by the split. You can argue the separation will allow TSC to pay more attention to occupational and technical programs.”

The latter is partly why Garza considers an independent TSC a plus. “We’re not meeting local needs. So many people are excited that they might finally get photography classes and sewing classes. They’ve been carpooling to save gas to get to classes” at community colleges 25 miles away or farther.

Mendez recalls the marketing of UTB/TSC components as balanced early on, but, by his undergraduate years there in the late 1990s, it was skewed toward UTB. “And by the time I moved back after law school (in Austin), no one talked about TSC anymore,” he says.

He and Garza were uncertain how TSC would cope financially without UTB, only saying lean times might lie ahead. The 2012 budget had not been finalized by the end of August, although Rendon says he does not expect the rate for local property owners to climb higher than last year’s 16 cents per $100 valuation.

Oliveira fears UT dumping TSC means many local youths “will lose out on a university experience for a fraction of what other UT schools cost.” Last year, the 17,800 UTB/TSC students paid $5,714 in tuition regardless of degree plans, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Garza counters it is unfair for those wanting certificates or associate degrees to fork over so much in UTB/TSC tuition “when they don’t care about the university experience; they just want skills and jobs.”

The breakup does not surprise Nevárez, whose 23-year presidency included UTPA’s entry into the UT System. “The missions of both schools are becoming incompatible, but, presumably, community college access and affordability will increase, especially without costs of activities like intercollegiate sports.”

Squabbling will likely continue as the partnership winds down, but Paredes hopes it will not harm students. “If they talk for more than five minutes without mentioning students, they’re on the wrong track. You can bicker over facilities and resources, but students are still at the core.”