Toyota’s Move to Texas—Why Improving Texas Higher Education Should be a Top Priority

May 7th, 2014

News last week that Toyota is moving its North American corporate headquarters from Torrance, California, to my hometown of Plano, Texas, was welcome to those of us who appreciate all that Plano and Texas offers.

It is also another feather in the cap of Governor Rick Perry who is a certified superstar in his ability to lure companies from coast to coast to the Lone Star State.

With the kind of growth Texas is experiencing the past several years, there are bound to be growing pains.  Native Texans like me quickly notice the traffic problems and increased cost of living (although still less than other places).

Probably one of the biggest issues facing Texas going forward as a result of all the growth is the inadequacy of higher education in the state.  Governor Perry is well aware of this problem and has at times announced plans to deal with it.  Unfortunately, that’s lead to conflict that remains ongoing.

Here’s the basic conundrum.  Back in the 1990’s,  in order to deal with the challenges in admission based on race resulting from the Supreme Court’s Hopwood v. Texas decision, the Texas Legislature passed HB 588, which in Texas is known as the Top Ten Percent Rule.  Under this law, every Texas high school student is guaranteed admission to a Texas public university if they graduate in the top ten percent of their class.

While the goals of the rule are noble, the practical application of it is proving to be something of a nightmare and only continues to get worse as Texas increases in population. That’s because while every year more and more students graduate in the top ten percent, the state of Texas currently only boasts two flagship universities, Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin.

That’s proving particularly troublesome for UT-Austin.  Every year that school receives astounding numbers of applications for their freshman class of 7,000.  Had the Texas Legislature not negotiated an arrangement to reduce the percentage entitled to automatic UT-Austin admission, future freshman classes would have been comprised of nothing but top ten percent students.  Likely, there wouldn’t even be room for all of them.

With the law, there is also the dilemma of what happens to students just outside the top ten percent who attend very competitive large high schools in the state like any of the three high schools in Plano.  With the large numbers of top ten graduates statewide, their prospects of attending either UT-Austin or Texas A&M are rather grim.

So where do they go?

It’s all pretty anecdotal, but here are some interesting “facts.”

When new Toyota employees stop by the Rally House store in Plano to pick up some local fan gear to get acclimated to the area, they may be surprised to find about one-third of the college store merchandise is devoted to the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. Growing up in Plano, I don’t recall knowing anyone graduating and becoming a Sooner.  Sure, a few probably did that, but they didn’t advertise it.  With the annual Texas/OU game in Dallas every year, there was a decided tilt in favor of the Longhorns even for kids who eventually attended school elsewhere.

Friends of mine who still live in Plano tell me that the Oklahoma schools are now popular destinations for Dallas area graduates. The same evidently is happening in the Houston area where LSU is high on the list of many high school seniors.

Talking to the college counselor at my son’s high school, she shared with me a conversation with an admissions officer at the University of Georgia who told her, “We love the Texas Legislature.  They give us great candidates from Texas every year.”

Californians clearly aren’t oblivious to the Achilles Heal in the Texas relocation movement.  Reading comments on articles about the Toyota move, many people note that while California boasts five universities in the top 25 of U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings, Texas only has one, Rice University, which is a private university.  Nine California universities are ranked ahead of UT-Austin which appears at number 52 on the list.  On the Forbes college ranking list, six California universities rank higher than UT-Austin which is slated at 66.

Sadly, a similar story exists when comparing Texas higher education to Michigan which is actually losing population but whose flagship state universities rank higher than those in Texas.

If attracting more businesses and with that more citizens to Texas is going to be considered a complete success, then Texas is going to need to find a way to accommodate this population at every stage. Improving higher education should be top on the list. An open governor’s race this year should provide a perfect opportunity for all Texans to consider the issue.

Part of the ultimate solution will mean investing in the improvement of existing flagship universities and developing new Tier One universities across the state.  That process is beginning but it needs to become a priority.  Otherwise, it will do little ultimately for Texas to bring in throngs of new citizens only to see the youth graduate and move away.

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