A look at today's student referendum at Texas A&M University-Commerce:
This referendum is as much, if not more, about academics as it is about athletics.
What's happening: On Wednesday, March 12, 2017, Texas A&M University-Commerce students will have an opportunity to log into their student dashboards and cast a vote in favor of, or in opposition to, a proposed increase in semester credit hour fees designated to benefit the athletics program.
How much are we talking? The proposal includes a fee increase of $21.01 per semester credit hour designated to fund athletics. The current fee is $10.99, and the resultant fee would be $32. If the measure passes, an undergrad student who enrolls in 13 or more credit hours starting Fall 2017 would notice the price of their education has gone up $273 per semester.
It should be noted that thanks to efforts to "lock in" tuition and fee rates for students once they're enrolled, the only students who will notice the increase are students who are not yet enrolled at TAMUC. That is, with passage of the measure, the increased fees will only apply to new students, or students just starting enrollment in undergraduate or graduate programs starting in the fall of 2017.
It's about academics.
According to A&M-Commerce president Dr. Ray Keck, the need to hire additional faculty dates back for a number of years. See, in 2010, the institution began to experience record enrollment growth, which continued to trend upward in 2011 and 2012. From 2012 to current, total university enrollment has hovered between 11,500 and approximately 13,000. Keck says that from a course delivery standpoint, the institution was ill-prepared for this sort of rapid growth, and has been playing catch-up for years.
Internal studies, says Keck, have indicated that current faculty are generally overburdened, and the net result has been scheduling that prioritizes the accommodation of students with multiple sections of a given course with sub-optimal course enrollment at the detriment of faculty who must teach multiple iterations of the same class to mostly empty classrooms. Further, because some sections of some classes are only taught during, say, odd-numbered years, it's been determined that some students require five or six years to complete a four-year degree.
Because the institution must meet students where they are, in many cases, and because the institution is serving more students than it has in any previous five-year period in history, the answer to the problem is to hire more faculty to teach more classes and more sections.
A recent indication from the university leadership was the intention to make possible 22 new tenure-track faculty positions. Through the fall of 2016, costs were cut and budgets were rearranged and funding was identified to create 6 new faculty positions. That leaves 16 to go, and brings us to this spring, and ultimately to this referendum.
Once again, Texas lawmakers are asking institutions of higher learning to brace for budget reductions. In addition, the state Senate just last week voted 29-2 in favor of a measure that would freeze tuition at state schools for the next two years, and allow only a 1% tuition increase, plus inflation, in year three and each subsequent year, to generate additional revenues to serve Texas' college students. While this measure has yet to see discussion in the House of Representatives, it's certainly resulted in raised eyebrows in collegiate budget offices throughout the state.
How this is supposed to work
If raising tuition is out, for the time being, and the budgetary magic has already been worked, a new plan was enacted.
Years ago, according to Keck, TAMUC had the opportunity to pass an athletic fee referendum to fund it's athletic program in a comparable way to programs at the schools with which they compete in the Lone Star Conference. Apparently, the referendum, as a benefit to athletics, did not pass, but a similar one to benefit the recreation center effort on campus did.
As a result, when enrollment grew, and as the high-profile sports in the athletics program were prepared to turn a corner and make investments, the institution's leadership chose to make up the difference by allocating a portion of tuition funds to the athletics program.
Keck says that the arrangement described above was a means to an end, but was not ideal, not preferred, and not standard practice.
This referendum, says Keck, is the only real opportunity to put the proper funding in the proper places, and gain some much-needed faculty in the process.
It works like this: Because Keck acquired special permission from the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents to propose this referendum, it has a caveat. If the students pass the referendum, which would bring the athletic fee in line with the athletic fee paid by students at schools with whom TAMUC competes in the Lone Star Conference, the budgetary savings that would have supported the athletics program can, and must, be used to support new faculty lines in order to alleviate the identified burden on current faculty. This would be confirmed to the Board of Regents by internal audit.
A yes vote for the referendum won't actually send more money to the athletics program. It'll just start to fund the athletics program in the way that athletics programs are funded elsewhere in the state.
A yes vote for the referendum would free up tuition money that's been allocated to the athletics program to be used for other pressing matters, such as the funding of new faculty lines of employment.
It works over time
Because, if passed, the new fee would only be imposed on newly-enrolled undergraduate or graduate students in the fall of 2017, the students who are paying the new fee, as a percentage of total enrollment, would be pretty small. But with each new semester comes new students who would be subject to the increased fee, thereby freeing up even more of the institutional budget aimed at hiring more teachers.
Estimates indicate that with the passage of the referendum, the institution could reallocate as much as $866,000 each year from athletics toward the faculty shortage.
Yes, the cost of going to school at Texas A&M University-Commerce would increase for students who enroll for the first time in the fall of 2017. But officials insist that the investment in a TAMUC education is still among the best values in the state, and is still a point of pride for the institution. The university even created this webpage to illustrate the facts and figures associated with the referendum, and conducted a series of open forums on the issue in order to answer questions that students may have.
Much of the opposition to the referendum, some of which was reported by the university's newspaper, The East Texan, is centered around two primary issues; a) a general misunderstanding about how the athletic fee proposed herein will relate to the athletic program, and b) the admittedly awkward scenario whereby students must vote to bind future students, who are not represented in the voting body, to additional fees (and, presumably, benefits.)
Both issues are clearly on the minds of university officials throughout this process. An eleveth-hour student forum, one of a series, was being hosted by Dean of Students Dr. Tomás Aguirre on the evening before the vote was to take place. And Keck recognizes that having guaranteed "locked in" tuition and fees for enrollees naturally makes a somewhat uncomfortable issue out of any referendum for the very reason identified above.
For what it's worth, KETR spoke with a few students who chose not to be identified, but who were willing to agree that they'd vote yes even if the increases applied to their future institutional invoices. Said one student, "I can't take all the courses I need to each semester. I understand why this is happening, and I want there to be more faculty to accommodate the educational needs of more students. I would gladly agree to pay a little more for my school to grow. It's the next logical step for A&M-Commerce."
Voting opens for enrolled students through their "MyLeo" portal on Wednesday.