Community college takes far more from taxpayers than any other college in the state, but results are just mediocre

May 15, 2009

TCC has high taxes, average performance
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Tarrant college takes in more tax money than any other community college system in Texas but falls to the middle of the pack on some major educational measures.

Tarrant County College collects far more from taxpayers than any of the state’s other community college districts, but it rates about average with its peers on key educational measures, a Star-Telegram analysis has found.

Tarrant County College collected more than $110.6 million in 2002-03 and had the second-highest tax rate among the 10 largest districts, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That total was more than the other 49 community college districts in the state. Dallas was No. 2, collecting about $79 million.

The TCC board of trustees meets tonight to approve the new budget, and officials expect the district to continue to take in more tax dollars than its peers.

District officials attribute part of the financial disparity to a policy of paying for construction projects from the general fund rather than holding bond elections as the state’s other districts do.

Bill Lace, executive assistant to Chancellor Leonardo de la Garza, said the district does other things differently as well, which he said helps explain some of the classroom measures.

Tarrant County College serves 33,000 students at four campuses, in Arlington, Hurst, and northwest and south Fort Worth. A fifth campus is planned for downtown Fort Worth.

District comparisons

The Star-Telegram compared TCC with the state’s other nine largest community college districts and found that:

* TCC’s teachers had excellent credentials. Ninety-four percent of the faculty had at least a bachelor’s degree in the 2001-02 academic year, the latest figures available. That ranks second to the Alamo district in San Antonio.

* TCC’s student-faculty ratio was extremely high. At 28 students per teacher in 2002-03, the district was last among the state’s 50 community college districts. The next-worst was El Paso, at 24.9.

* TCC’s class size was a bit above average. At 23 students per class, the district ranked fourth. Houston’s district was best, at 20 students per class.

* TCC’s graduation rate of 9 percent was a bit above average. The San Jacinto district, in the Pasadena area, was best, at 13 percent; TCC was tied for third-best.

* TCC’s transfer rate was so-so. Twenty-eight percent of students went on to four-year universities, sixth-best among the top 10. Austin’s 39 percent was the best.

Lace, the executive assistant to TCC’s chancellor, acknowledged that the district needs to boost the transfer rate.

“We recognize that this is something that we need to do a better job of,” he said, adding that TCC is working with the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas in Denton to make it easier for students to transfer.

J. Ardis Bell, president of the board of trustees, said TCC students who do transfer to nearby four-year universities do well.

Lace said the other measures can be explained in several ways.

Student demand has made the district’s classes 75 percent academic and 25 percent technical, unlike most community colleges. Technical programs typically have a lower student-teacher ratio and smaller classes, he said.

TCC’s high number of academic courses requires more instructors with bachelor’s degrees or higher, Lace said.

The class size number might be skewed because TCC has an active distance-learning program and those students are included in the calculation, Lace said.

Bell said he was surprised that the graduation rate was so low and said trustees could “look into” the high faculty-student ratio.

But he praised TCC’s pay-as-you-go construction policy, which began shortly after de la Garza became chancellor in 1997, as a way to save money by avoiding interest on bonds.

“We’re saving money for the citizens in not having to pay exorbitant interest. We’re actually saving millions of dollars,” Bell said.

Higher tax rate

Trustees have more than doubled the tax rate since 1997, to almost 14 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, in part to build a new downtown campus. Property taxes make up 60 percent of TCC’s budget, helping to keep tuition among the lowest in the state: 33rd of 50.

Lace said TCC had the highest bond indebtedness of any Texas community college in 1997 but now has the fifth-highest, owing about $103 million. The district has paid for almost $48 million in capital improvements since 1998, he said.

TCC has the highest bond rating possible and recently used its stellar credit rating to refinance old debt at a lower interest rate.

James Breeding, a Dallas-based associate director for Standard & Poor’s, wrote a credit analysis of TCC that investors used to refinance the bonds. He gave the district’s finances high marks and said paying for construction in cash is not hurting the college.

“It’s not putting any stress on their operation. They have plenty of reserves,” he said. “They have sufficient resources to meet their current operations. They don’t run into any cash-flow problems.”

Wanda Conlin, a director of Fort Worth Citizens for Responsible Government, said she likes TCC’s commitment to paying for construction in cash.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea. I don’t like owing money,” she said. “I think that’s a very solid business practice.”

She said, however, that she was “astonished” to learn that TCC took more from its taxpayers than any other Texas community college.

“I’m a little disappointed about some of the things that we’re not getting out of that tax, but overall it’s not that bad,” she said after reviewing the five educational measures compiled by the Star-Telegram.

Jerry Zumwalt, coordinator of the radio television broadcasting program at TCC’s Northeast Campus in Hurst, said he has been on the faculty since 2000 and has been impressed. He said the district is constantly working to improve measures such as graduation rates and student-faculty ratios.

“We’re not at the top of the list, but we’re up there pretty good for institutions of our size,” said Zumwalt, president of the Northeast Campus’ faculty association.

He said TCC attracts better-educated instructors than most of its peers, not just because of relatively high salaries, but because employees are treated well.

TCC’s average faculty salary last academic year was $52,641, according to the Texas Community College Teachers Association. That’s the third-highest in the state, after the districts in Dallas and Austin.

“That’s something we brag about, and you get what you pay for,” Lace said.

Many students agree.

Kahurram Arien, 19, and Tewodros Wondiamagegn, 23, both students at the Southeast Campus in Arlington, said that their instructors are excellent and that they do not feel classes are too large.

Melissa Mills, 21, in her third semester at the South Campus in Fort Worth, was in the minority of students interviewed for this report. She said some instructors assign work without seeming to care about it.

“Half of them really seem like they hate their job,” she said.

But Whitney Corbett, 20, also in her third semester at the same campus, said she’s had “nothing but help from the people that work here.”


Grading the colleges

The Tarrant County College District collected far more property taxes than any of the state’s 49 other community college districts in fiscal 2003. Tarrant’s total of $110.6 million was more than $31 million higher than No. 2 Dallas.*

Tarrant’s tax rate of 13.9 cents per $100 valuation was the second-highest among the top 10, but tuition and fees for district residents were among the lowest, at $483 for 12 semester hours.

Here is a look at what Tarrant taxpayers are getting for their money, in comparison with the other nine largest districts and the statewide benchmarks:

Teaching credentials: Excellent

* 94 percent of Tarrant County’s full- and part-time faculty had at least a bachelor’s degree in the 2001-02 academic year, the second-best total among the top 10 and far better than the statewide rate of 82 percent.

Alamo 96 Houston 85 Tarrant 94 San Jacinto 85 Collin 92 Dallas 68 North Harris Montgomery 91 Austin 68 El Paso 86 South Texas 33

Student-teacher ratio: Poor

* 28 students for every faculty member in Tarrant County was the worst ratio among the top 10 and far above the statewide ratio of 20.3.

Austin 17.1 Collin 19.7 Houston 17.1 Alamo 20.5 North Harris Montgomery 18 Dallas 20.8 San Jacinto 19.7 El Paso 24.9 South Texas 19.7 Tarrant 28

Class size: Above average

* 23 students per class, on average, ranked Tarrant fourth best among the top 10 and was far better than the statewide average of 30.

Houston 20 North Harris Montgomery 25 San Jacinto 21 Austin 28 Dallas 22 South Texas 30 Tarrant 23 Collin 34 El Paso 24 Alamo 44

Graduation rate: Above average

* 9 percent of full-time Tarrant students who started college for the first time in fall 1999 graduated from a two-year institution within four years. That is tied for third among the urban districts but falls short of the statewide rate of 11 percent.

San Jacinto 13 North Harris Montgomery 7 South Texas 11 Dallas 7 Collin 9 El Paso 6 Tarrant 9 Alamo 5 Houston 7 Austin 4

Transfer rate: Below average

* 28 percent of Tarrant County’s students transferred to a four-year school, sixth-best among the top 10. The statewide transfer rate was 31 percent.

Austin 39 Tarrant 28 North Harris Montgomery 35 Dallas 26 Collin 34 Alamo 25 Houston 30 South Texas 23 San Jacinto 29 El Paso 16

Note: Numbers are rounded.

* Unlike the state’s other districts, TCC pays for capital improvements from the general fund rather than holding elections and selling bonds. District officials say that explains, in part, why their property tax collections are so much higher.

sources: Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Association of Community Colleges