Dan Branch

Texas House Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas helped kick off Student Government’s fall session by speaking at the organization’s first general meeting Tuesday.

Branch addressed the University’s push for higher graduation rates and increased emphasis on technology.

In July, Branch announced his candidacy for attorney general. His representative term ends Jan. 14, 2014. Branch is the chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education and two of Branch’s children are current UT students.

Branch said SG’s initiatives could go beyond campus projects.

“I encourage you to have a big vision and reach beyond President Powers, reach beyond the [UT System Board of] Regents, reach beyond your faculty and administration and think about what you want UT-Austin to be 50 years from now,” Branch said. 

Branch said his vision for the University included students and SG leaders reevaluating campus initiatives.

“If someone takes an online course do they really get the knowledge?” Branch said. “It is for your generation to decide, ‘Are these technologies really making more educated group of students?’ and ultimately the test is if we improve our graduation rates.”

Branch said he encouraged SG to focus on the projects that are achievable to make a real impact on students.

“You all should think of the few things you want to be the theme for your term,” Branch said. “Sometimes when you try to do too many things no one remembers that you did anything.”

With the U.S. Supreme Court deliberating on a case challenging the University’s use of race for some admissions decisions, the Texas House Higher Education Committee discussed a bill Wednesday to prevent adverse effects on the current top 10 percent rule used to admit most students. 

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, committee chairman, said the proposed bill will act to prevent the chaos that would accompany a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas that could deem UT’s use of affirmative action in its admissions process illegal. The Supreme Court is expected to come to a decision sometime this summer.

“There is a possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in a way that changes the admission policies and therefore undoes the bipartisan compromise we crafted in 2009,” Branch said. “This bill is meant to prevent the court’s ruling from literally pulling the rug out from under students across our state who are trying to have clarity on what the rules of the game are in terms of admissions.”

In 2009, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allowed UT to place a cap on the number of students it admitted automatically under the top 10 percent rule. However, if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Fisher, an amendment called the “Hook ‘em Amendment” by Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, will be enacted. The Hook ‘em Amendment states that if race can no longer be considered as a factor in undergraduate admissions, then UT would eliminate any caps placed on the number of students admitted under the top 10 percent rule.

Branch’s bill would remove the amendment.

“The Hook‘em Amendment could actually hook us, and put our University in a position where the undoing of the reforms would cause admission chaos,” Branch said.

Without reform, the number of automatically admitted students is projected to go from 83 percent in fall 2012 to 105 percent in Fall 2017.

President William Powers Jr. said the modifications made to the top 10 percent rule in 2009 have not caused reverse diversification, and he does not expect Branch’s bill to either. 

“Our position has always been it is a tool used in admissions, but should not be the only one,” Powers said. “If we get to 100 percent of automatically admitted students then we’ve lost control of the size of our class and there is no other pathway into the university than high school ranking. God willing, the Supreme Court will confirm our admissions process, but if not, we need to be prepared.”

Marianna Anaya, an ethnic studies and radio-television-film senior and who was admitted through the top 10 percent rule, said her recent acceptance into a Stanford University graduate program is proof of the success that automatically admitted students can achieve.

“I want to highlight the struggles of historically under-represented people who still have agency, they’re still intelligent and they still deserve to be at a school like UT-Austin — a value that the top 10 percent rule upholds,” Anaya said. “I am a concrete example of the benefits of UT’s history of dedication to diversity.”

When Texas state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, picked out a tie Monday morning, he tried to choose one that was equal parts burnt orange and maroon.

Branch, who is chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, was a highlighted speaker at a joint meeting held Monday by the UT Faculty Council and the Texas A&M University Faculty Senate. The two faculty councils heard updates about issues affecting higher education in Texas at both flagship universities. 

“UT and A&M are more similar than they are different,” Branch said. “They measure success with similar yardsticks.”

One major topic of conversation was the push to raise graduation rates. 

“If someone has to take longer because they’re working, that’s fine,” Branch said. “But for students who don’t need to take longer, who also need to work, there are opportunities to do that. I personally took 19 and 20 hours some semesters — you don’t hear many people doing that anymore.”

Patricia Roberts-Miller, UT English and rhetoric and writing professor, expressed concern that the push for higher graduation rates and utilization of strategies like massive open online courses would lead to lowered standards of quality.

“I often think pressure to get the degree can result in pressure to reduce quality in all sorts of ways,” Roberts-Miller said. 

Branch said any reforms that lead to a reduction in quality will also result in faculty departure.

“If reforms cause public universities to be degraded because quality folks leave, your reform was not the reform you were hoping for,” Branch said. “Faculty can vote with their feet, and so can administrators.”

A bill to consolidate three UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one university will be the first piece of legislation considered by the Texas House Higher Education Committee during this session. 

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature would combine University of Texas at Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and committee chairman, said Wednesday that he promised members of the South Texas delegation to hear the bill at the committee’s meeting next week.

“It’s very, very exciting news,” Branch said.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said System officials will give testimony on the bill.

“We are very pleased that Chairman Branch has recognized the importance of this legislation to the UT System, the region and the entire state of Texas by agreeing to set it as the first bill to come become the House Higher Education Committee,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

House Higher Education considers bill to consolidate Valley schools first

A bill to consolidate three UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one university will be the first piece of legislation considered by the Texas House Higher Education Committee during this session.

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature would combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and committee chairman, said Wednesday that he promised members of the South Texas delegation to hear the bill at the committee’s meeting next week.

“It’s very, very exciting news,” Branch said.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said System officials will give testimony on the bill.

“We are very pleased that Chairman Branch has recognized the importance of this legislation to the UT System, the region and the entire state of Texas by agreeing to set it as the first bill to come become the House Higher Education Committee,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

Bills in Texas Legislature would consolidate UT System schools in Rio Grande Valley

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would bring the UT System to consolidating its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a fund established by the Texas Constitution to allocate money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

The bills would direct the board of regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.

At their Dec. 6 meeting, the UT System Board of Regents voted to allow UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to work with the Texas Legislature to establish the school.

“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Regents Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over ten years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine.

In January, Cigarroa told the Senate Finance Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and establishment of the medical school.

This is unlike the arrangement that will fund the UT-Austin medical school, which will use revenue from the board of regents, Seton Family of Hospitals, a regional hospital network, and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At that meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

The House bill is authored by five representatives including state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. The bill also has five co-authors.

The Senate bill is authored by four senators including state Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

For the System to establish the school, both houses of the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote.

In a statement, Branch said the bill gives the Legislature and UT System an opportunity to enhance education, research and business activity in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It's our vision that the Rio Grande Valley will one day rival Silicon Valley as an intersection of education and innovation," Branch said.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System.

During his State of the State Address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state's future, and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold,” Perry said.

A mix of old and new faces will fill the House Higher Education Committee, which was announced Thursday.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus renamed state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the committee. State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas; Donna Howard, D-Austin; and John Raney, R-College Station. New members are state Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo; Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco; Jim Murphy, R-Houston; and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

“Our state’s position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce,” Howard said. “We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow’s challenges.”

The new committee includes six Republicans and three Democrats, differing from the makeup of the previous membership, which included five Republicans and four Democrats.

Sherri Greenberg, former member of the Texas House of Representatives and director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said she does not think this slight shift in partisan alignment will significantly affect the committee’s decision-making process. 

“At this point, I don’t think it will be a big difference,” Greenberg said. “I think we will see a very reasoned debate.”

Some committee members have filed bills that would freeze tuition for undergraduates, tie more university formula funding to student success and establish a law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

Branch filed a bill that would require universities to offer students the option of paying fixed-rate tuition if they graduate within the time allotted by their degree plan. Branch also authored a bill that would tie 25 percent of university formula funding to student outcomes such as graduation rates. Gov. Rick Perry expressed support for both initiatives during his State of the State address Tuesday.

Martinez filed a bill that would allow the board of regents of a university system to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties near the Texas-Mexico border.

Texas Speaker of the House names House Higher Education Committee

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus named committees of the Texas House of Representatives Thursday, including the nine members of the House Higher Education Committee.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, will remain chairman of the committee and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, will succeed former state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, as vice chair. Castro was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

In addition to Branch and Patrick, returning members include state Reps. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, Donna Howard, D-Austin, and John Raney, R-College Station.

New members are Reps. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, and Jim Murphy, R-Houston, and freshman Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches.

In a statement accompanying the appointments, Straus said he considered members’ expertise and representative districts when making his decisions.

“All of the committee appointments highlight the House’s strong mix of experienced leaders and newer members who are ready to take on greater responsibility,” Straus said. “After traveling around the state to visit with Members before the session and talking to them over the last few weeks, I am very encouraged that the House is ready to tackle the serious challenges our state faces.”

In a statement following the committee announcement, Howard said she looks forward to working with Branch as the committee addresses the state’s higher education needs.

"Our state's position as an economic leader depends on a well-educated workforce," Howard said. "We must ensure that our diverse population is prepared to meet tomorrow's challenges."

Editor’s note: Texas State Rep. Dan Branch (R-Dallas) serves as chair of the House Higher Education Committee. He spoke with Daily Texan associate editor Pete Stroud about the diminished higher education budget, outcomes-based funding and how he hopes the 83rd Legislature will anticipate the outcome of the pending U.S. Supreme Court Fisher decision. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daily Texan: How does this session’s planned budget for UT differ from recent years?

Dan Branch: If you look at just the general revenue appropriated funds, the base budget is a little bit less than two years ago. Because it’s a starting point, I think there are plenty of opportunities for changes to the base budget, so I think it would be premature to somehow predict that UT is going to do much better or much worse or even the same ... by the time we get to late May.

DT: Why have you pushed for outcomes-based funding?

DB: [We need] to put a little more incentive on completion rather than just enrollment. Now, we incentivize enrollment very much in the process, and my goal is to put a little more balance in that and have some incentives on the back end, where we need to do better ... In fact, I was really pleased that [UT President Bill] Powers sort of laid down the gauntlet for all of our four-year universities by making a bold prediction that the 2012 fall entering class would be held accountable to graduate at 70 percent in four years.

DT: You filed a bill that would require universities to offer fixed, four-year tuition plans. If passed, how would your bill make college more affordable?

DB: It gives certainty to students and parents, and any funders of higher ed — you know that if your student is one that’s interested in getting in and out in four years you’ve got a fixed price. My legislation doesn’t make it mandatory that that be the only price a school can offer. What it calls for is that each public university will give the option. So you can either buy higher education by the semester or year, as we price it today in most places, or you could buy it for eight semesters or four years at a fixed price. And obviously if you do that there’s going to be a bit of a premium built in on the front end because you know you’re going to likely get a discount on the back end because you’re getting a fixed price over four years. It’s also designed to encourage people to get in and get out ... and that’s the best way to keep your costs down ... And if you’re getting financial aid, you free up that financial aid for the next student.

DT: How will the Legislature as a whole and your committee specifically react if the state wins or loses Fisher v. UT?

DB:  We anticipate based on past history that the Supreme Court will rule probably in the late spring and therefore to be prudent, I anticipate introducing legislation to preserve the Top Ten Percent Reforms ... because in the reform package that we passed in 2009 ... was an amendment that got added to the bill that said that if there was a change in admissions policy as a result of a court ruling, all the reforms would go away. It was a sort of killer amendment. And my argument would be  that it would now be timely to remove that portion of the reform package from statute, because ... if [UT’s race-influenced admissions] were to be struck down by the Supreme Court, then all the Top Ten Percent reforms would fall and we would have chaos in 2014 before we come back into session ... To me it makes much more sense to take that piece out of the statute and anticipate that there could be a ruling that could affect UT’s admissions, and if it does, then we would have smoothed out any risk of this sort of chaos in 2014. And those who want to revisit the reforms, they would have the opportunity in the 2015 legislative session to [do so]... But we can do that in a way that’s orderly, and not somehow that would just sort of pull the rug out from under UT because we had a Supreme Court ruling that all of a sudden, because of this amendment from 2009, rips out all of the reforms — and there would be no governor at all on the Top Ten Percent rule, which is what we had in place before 2009. There was nothing in law to prevent 30,000 students from having an automatic right in the state of Texas to come to UT-Austin. And as you know, the UT-Austin entering class last year was a little over 8,000 students, and we would not have a way to take on that sort of capacity if all the reforms were to go away ... I think at a minimum, whether you’re rural, urban, right of center, left of center, we can all agree that we shouldn’t do something that would unintentionally harm UT and disrupt its admissions process while we weren’t in session and able to address it.

In an effort to reduce the cost of college degrees in Texas, four-year fixed tuition rates could become a reality at public Texas universities after the upcoming legislative session.

A bill filed by Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, will require institutions to offer undergraduate students a fixed tuition plan for four years. If students do not graduate in four years, institutions would charge tuition at the rate it was charged a year after the student initially enrolled at the institution.

UT-Dallas and UT-El Paso, which both charge tuition per credit hour, currently offer guaranteed tuition plans with fixed four-year tuition rates.

UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa recently told The Daily Texan tuition options would work better for the System than imposing uniform requirements that would not fit at all institutions.

“Many students [at UT-El Paso] are taking on one or two jobs, and many students are concerned that because of their unique circumstances as a student that they may not be able to graduate in four years,” Cigarroa said. “The student demographic is different.”

Since the 2007 fall semester, UT-Dallas has enrolled all new students in its guaranteed tuition plan. In 2007, the first year the school used its guaranteed tuition plan, average in-state tuition increased by almost $1,000.

At UT-El Paso, students are given the option to choose between a traditional tuition plan and a fixed tuition plan if they enroll in a minimum of 15 semester credit hours.

Figures show a majority of students opt to participate in the traditional tuition plan, and only 4 percent of new students enrolled in the guaranteed tuition plan last year.

In 2007, the year after the guaranteed plan was approved, tuition rates at UT-El Paso increased by more than $1,300.

Tuition rates at both institutions have steadily increased since then.

The bill would not require institutions to offer alternative tuition plans to undergraduate students as UT-El Paso has since 2006.

Efforts via phone and email to reach Branch to discuss the bill were unsuccessful. Branch is the chair of the House Higher Education Committee.

Last year UT President William Powers Jr. recommended a 2.6 percent in-state tuition hike for the University, which was denied by the UT System Board of Regents. During his 2012 State of the University address, Powers said stable revenue streams from the state for four years are crucial if the state wants to set fixed tuition rates.

Michael Morton, Senate of College Councils president, serves on the University’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee and said it is important to determine what the bill could mean for other resources UT-Austin provides for students through tuition.

“For students, it would look promising in terms of the affordability aspect because history shows tuition would increase rather than decrease during those four years,”

Morton said. “During those four years, the University would need more [state] appropriations because if revenue decreases the University isn’t able to adjust and make up for the loss, leading to possible cuts to programs at the educational level.”

Four-year tuition rates fall in line with Gov. Rick Perry’s initiatives for
higher education.

“We want to give them the stability, the predictability of ‘Here’s what it’s going to cost you for four years,’” Perry said during a press conference last year.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which administers various state higher education programs and makes recommendations to the Legislature, would have the ability to adopt any rules appropriate to administering fixed tuition rates.

Board spokesperson Dominic Chavez said the board is concerned about the rising cost of higher education and has focused on identifying initiatives and proposals to improve cost efficiency and productivity in higher education.

While recommendations from the board usually line up with Perry’s initiatives, the board has not endorsed four-year tuition rates.

If passed, four-year tuition rates will be implemented during the 2013 fall semester.

Printed on Tuesday, December 4, 2012 as: Bill focuses on four-year guaranteed tuition rates