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Rep. Branch Tackles Texas' Poor College Graduation Rate As He Weighs A Race For Attorney General

Texas House of Representatives

State Rep.Dan Branch says he’ll decide whether to run for attorney general at the end of the legislative session in May.

Right now the six-term lawmaker has his hands full as Chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

In today’s “Capitol Closeup,” the Dallas Republican talks to KERA’s Shelley Kofler about changes he’s proposing for colleges and universities, and one proposal that would hit where it hurts if they don’t produce better results.

  Tackling the abysmal college completion rate in Texas is Rep. Dan Branch’s top priority this session. 

“We clearly need more people graduating and graduating in a shorter time frame,” said Branch.

Just 48 percent of Texas students enrolled in four-year schools finish their bachelors’ degrees within six years.  Many never earn diplomas.

Branch’s answer: something called outcomes-based legislation. 

Instead of funding universities based on the number of students who enroll, Branch’s House Bill 25  would make 25 percent of their state money contingent on students graduating in a reasonable amount of time.

The business community and Governor Perry are solidly behind the bill. 

Branch says employers are clamoring for more educated workers at every level, from those with graduate and undergraduate degrees, to those with certificates for completing training in a certain skill.

“We can’t get enough.  We are bringing in about 90 000 people into the state each year that have degrees,” said Branch.

But Branch’s bill has opposition that could prevent it from having any teeth.

Two years ago he passed a similar bill.  Only instead of linking 25 percent of a school’s funding to graduation rates it said 10 percent of the money would depend on the school graduating students.

Colleges and universities are supposed to begin feeling the force of that 10 percent soon after the measure is placed in the budget this session.

But opponents have made sure it isn’t in the initial budgets coming out of the House and Senate, in part because they believe it would be unfair to schools with students who must work and take longer to graduate. Those schools could lose money. 

So, unless Branch and supporters can convince lawmakers writing the budget to include the 10 percent requirement, passing a tougher 25 percent funding restriction would be nearly meaningless. The laws would be on the books but they wouldn’t be implemented.

Branch admits he’s struggling to get traction with his graduation incentive but he’s optimistic he can get it over the goal line.

“We don’t fund roads by saying, hey, if you start the roads you get all the money.  We pay as you go and at some point we you want the road to be completed.  And taxpayers want people to start school and then they want them to finish,” said Branch.

Branch also hopes to spur graduation rates with House Bill 30 which would make it easier for community college students to transfer their credits to four-year universities. 

He’s carrying House Bill 29 which would require universities to do something UT Dallas is already doing – offer incoming freshman a tuition rate that would remain the same for four years. 

His House Bill 31callas for university boards of regents to get into the twenty-first century and operate more openly by streaming their meetings online.

“If you’re a parent or an engaged citizen or someone from the media, this is a way to see what’s really happening,” he said.

Another hot-button issue on college campuses is whether students and staff should be able to carry concealed weapons. 

Branch says the question should be resolved on a campus-by- campus basis.    

“If you’re at Sul Ross University in Alpine and everyone feels very comfortable with concealed handgun licenses, or whether that’s an urban area that feels comfortable, then those people are closest to the campus, closest to the environment and they should make the decision,” said Branch.

Texas Monthly has named 55- year old Dan Branch one of Texas’s ten best legislators during the past two sessions, and he’d no doubt like to be on that prestigious list again this year.

It’s a badge of honor that would look pretty good on his resume if he becomes a candidate running for statewide office.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.