Office of the President

Higher Education: A Public Good or Private Benefit?

Commencement address Fall 2008

In a few minutes, todayís graduates will pass across this stage and receive our appreciation and applause on their achievement. Congratulations especially to those of you who are the first in your family to earn a college degree. Approximately half of our undergraduate students are, like me, first-generation college graduates.

The University of Texas at Dallas is an academically distinguished and challenging institution. This year's freshman class, once again, had the highest average SAT score among public universities in Texas. We have, in addition to an exceptionally strong student body, a truly superb faculty. The faculty includes a Nobel laureate as well as elected members of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. Only four universities in Texas can say this, and one is UT Dallas. The other three are UT Austin, Texas A&M, and Rice University.

There is no question that the educational opportunity we offer at UT Dallas is of extraordinary quality ó particularly when considered against universities that been here for hundreds of years, in comparison to our 39-year history. I like our youth and entrepreneurial culture — it distinguishes UT Dallas graduates as leading-edge thinkers! And weíre going for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship of collegiate chess this year. Go Comets!

Each of todayís graduates worked hard and succeeded under rigorous demands. Among your challenges may have been paying for your education.

There is no doubt that the cost of a quality college education has increased over the years, as have the costs for almost everything that we consume.

Of course, some of the purchases provide more lasting value than others. One college president has compared the cost of a car to the cost of a college education. He reminds us that no one blinks at financing a new car that wears out in a decade. The cost of a public university degree is roughly the same, but its value is greater and lasts longer. As I told my 16-year-old when I gave him the keys to my old car earlier this year, “If you wreck it, itís gone. So be careful.” Weíre hoping to avoid a hands-on learning experience.

UT Dallas has been recognized for some time as a ìbest valueî college by those who issue national rankings. I have no doubt that our students receive a great value, and that any increases in cost have been necessary to maintain quality. So I wonít ñ canít ó apologize for what it costs to provide students with a quality education. What I do question is whether students and by extension their families should bear as much cost as they have come to. Let me explain what I mean by telling you the story of a young person who went to college decades ó or was it epochs? ó ago.

When young David Daniel attended the University of Texas at Austin the state contributed roughly $20 for every dollar my parents and I paid. Why was the State of Texas willing to pay so much for my education? Public investment in higher education was viewed as serving the overall public good. I am sure that in tax revenue alone, the investment in my education has been repaid to Texas many, many times.

So, I entered college in 1968. I've been told that in 1968 the State of Texas spent roughly 50 percent of all tax dollars collected on higher education, while today that fraction is just 12 percent of the state budget.

Here at UT Dallas, we began admitting freshmen in 1990. At that time, for every dollar paid in tuition, the state funded the University $4.75. Today, for every dollar a student pays, the state contributes about 56 cents.

This isnít unique to Texas. Itís a national trend. Somewhere, somehow, we have come to view a college degree not as serving the public good but, rather, as a private benefit. A luxury. Something you might buy if you or your family have the money, but not something our society really needs.

This movement away from supporting young adults in their pursuit of higher education represents the worst public policy shift in my lifetime. I emphasize that itís not unique to Texas.

Some observers will point out that higher education now competes with growing demands for funding of medical coverage and other programs that address basic human need. And itís true that no has ever collapsed to the ground, overcome by stupidity, and been saved by being rushed to a university for emergency instruction.

But it is also true that large scale issuesóstartling economic developments, growing energy demand, continuing challenges in the area of global understanding and diplomacyóhave come to affect daily life in ways most of us could not have anticipated. Meaningful approaches to these challenges demand the development of human intellectual capital. The best way ó the only way ó I know of doing that is through higher education.

Higher education is a public good and not just an individual benefit. Some believe that Americaís best days are behind us. They are only behind us if we relegate higher education to status as an optional perquisite, not an essential national prerequisite toward global competitiveness and overall advancement as a society.

UT Dallas has been engaged in a very public effort this year to seek greater state funding for research universities in Texas. A lot of people refer to this as the ìTier One Initiative.î

Why should this effort matter to you as you plan to leave university life and move on in your careers?

First: Most of you will remain in the area. Research tells us 80 percent of our graduates live in Dallas-Fort Worth. Dallas-Fort Worth, while numbered among the top 10 U.S. cities in economic productivity, is the only one in that group without a major national research university. We all love this area, but we need to raise expectations of what makes a great city to include great research universities.

Second: Texas and our region pay an economic penalty for not having enough top-quality universities. Texas has 8 percent of the U.S. population, but receives only 5 percent of federal research and development funding. We should at least receive our population-equivalent share. But our share is going to other states. Why? Other states have more national research universities ó for instance, nine in California, seven in New York, to Texasí three.

And while D-FW, Houston and San Antonio make up 80 percent of the stateís economy, Austin attracts more venture capital ó resources spent by investors looking to fund new ideas ó than D-FW, Houston and San Antonio combined for the past two years. UT Austinís Tier One reputation makes a difference. Texas needs more national research institutions to compete effectively, especially in its major cities like Dallas-Fort Worth.

UT Dallas is unique among the Texas universities striving toward this goal because our challenge is simply to grow ó in enrollment, in faculty numbers and in infrastructure. Our quality is unquestioned. Our potential is unlimited. We can move more quickly to greatness with an assist from our state, but with or without it, we will remain aimed at that goal.

Your record as a class, which we celebrate here today, is a part of that quality and that potential. You represent a great public good, for the difference you will make the future of Texas and our nation. I congratulate you on your achievements.

Thank you, and good luck!

Updated: November 22, 2011