By Camille Wheeler
ROUND ROCK — The University of Texas is jammed. Texas A&M University is crammed. Southwest Texas State University is packed.
By 2015, there might not be enough classroom space for all the state’s higher education students, much less space for them to unpack their suitcases. Statewide enrollment is likely to grow by half a million by then, according to the state’s higher education plan, titled Closing the Gaps.
So SWT, Austin Community College and Round Rock officials are asking Texas legislators to carry one more expensive piece of luggage into their January session: a $26 million request to build a permanent home for the Round Rock Higher Education Center.
If the facility is approved for funding, students would merely need transportation, not suitcases. There would be no dorms at Round Rock’s first higher education facility. There would be computer labs, classrooms equipped with interactive televisions, large lecture halls and degree plans from ACC and SWT.
In San Marcos, there would be sighs of relief about a new satellite location. SWT’s campus is about 250,000 square feet short of meeting educational and general needs. And Austinites who prefer driving north instead of south might be relieved, too.
“I understand that this is a very difficult year for the Legislature, one of the hardest in 10 years,” said SWT President Denise Trauth.
Referring to the forecast for statewide enrollment growth, Trauth said: “I believe the state is making a compelling case that we need to educate more of our citizens. And if we’re going to do that, the state is going to have to appropriate more money for these students.”
The Round Rock center -- created in 1998 as the North Austin/Williamson County Multi-Institution Teaching Center -- is one of the state’s three multi-institution centers (called MITCs or “mit-zees”). The center, which was renamed this fall, has operated in portable buildings at Westwood and Round Rock high schools since 1998.
At the new facility -- tentatively scheduled to open in fall 2005 -- ACC would offer freshman and sophomore classes, associate degrees and program certificates. SWT would offer junior and senior classes and degree plans reaching the master’s level. Officials project a first-year enrollment of 4,400: 2,500 students from SWT and 1,900 from ACC.
Currently, 1,496 SWT students attend classes at the center. The center’s entire enrollment eventually would move to the new Round Rock facility, a 117,000-square-foot building that would hold 35 classrooms.
“If we had a full-time, daytime program and were offering more classes, it would alleviate some of the pressure here in San Marcos,” said Bill Nance, SWT’s vice president of finance. About 30 percent of the SWT students in Round Rock are from Williamson County. Forty percent are from North Austin, and 12 percent are from Round Rock.
According to Dallas-based researcher Berri O’Neal, there are about 15 multi-institution centers in the United States and an international one in Vancouver, British Columbia. Multi-institutional teaching centers provide teaching and administrative space for two or more public higher education institutions at a single site away from the schools’ main campuses. In Texas, the concept also has spawned five system centers, which represent different arms of one university at a single site.
Trauth, in her first year at SWT, said, “I think the MITC is the most efficient way for the state to use its money. . . .You don’t have separate faculties, separate department chairs, separate deans.”
Trauth said SWT’s instructors will continue making the round-trip drive to Round Rock. “The I-35 corridor makes a lot of sense for us,” she said. “We have a very generous faculty because they are willing to inconvenience themselves to serve the needs of students. I find it wonderful.”
Southwest Texas State is governed by the Texas State University System, whose board of regents is preparing to take a final vote on whether the facility would be built on a tract of Avery Farms land in northeast Round Rock.
“The Avery site is not totally signed off on,” said Lamar Urbanovsky, system chancellor. “It’s probably the front-runner, but the board has not officially acted.” John Avery, whose family owns the land, has offered to donate up to 100 acres for the facility, which initially might occupy 40 acres.
Urbanovsky said the center would have enormous benefits. “It’s our number one priority for SWT,” he said. “We think the need is there; we think the growth is going to be there. With the University of Texas trying to hold their enrollment down, it will force even more students that direction.”
Space also is a huge issue for SWT. Nance said the university requested $18 million for a Round Rock facility during the 2001 legislative session. But SWT focused more on securing its top request: a new business building for its San Marcos campus, which the Legislature approved.
Now, Round Rock is priority No. 1 for SWT, which is classified as a “space-deficit” institution by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
“All you can do is state your case for the need and hope that people recognize that need,” Nance said. “Despite the doom and gloom of the state’s financial situation, I think the Legislature understands the value of a strong educational system in the state.”
Nance said several financial options will be presented, but he will push for the Legislature to authorize a 20-year tuition revenue bond that would be issued by SWT and the Texas State University System. The estimated annual payments would be $1.9 million in principal and interest.
Edna Rehbein, executive director of the proposed Round Rock Higher Education Center, is optimistic that the Legislature will be generous.
“I think if they’re going to fund any educational request, this is the one they would because the demand is very, very heavy here,” she said.
Texas’ first multi-institutional education center -- the Universities Center at Dallas, where O’Neal is director of marketing and recruitment -- opened in 1993.
O’Neal’s recent dissertation explores, in part, how the demand for MITCs has grown because travel time and distances separate many students from the college they want to attend. The demand can be seen as near as Fredericksburg and Marble Falls, where Texas Tech University offers courses through its Hill Country University Center.
O’Neal said traditional institutions no longer can reach all populations. “Nontraditional students also may find the locations of the MITCs more convenient for attendance, in that they can continue with their current life schedules,” she said.
Rehbein coordinates the Round Rock Higher Education Center from a portable building near Westwood High. SWT offers 15 graduate, five undergraduate and four certification programs to an enrollment that has grown 40 percent since last fall.
Meanwhile, the footprints of 3,300 ACC students are all over Williamson County: at early-college-start programs at Georgetown High School, all Round Rock district high schools and the Cypress Creek campus in Cedar Park, which is part of ACC’s main system.
ACC began offering classes in Georgetown and Round Rock high schools in the early 1980s. SWT has been blazing a trail north since 1996, when it started offering courses at Westwood High.
Temple College at Taylor belongs to the multi-institution center, but it cannot offer courses in Round Rock because its service area extends from Hutto east to Taylor. Texas community colleges set their own service boundaries through mutual agreement.
Trauth said SWT’s long-range plans in Round Rock include keeping ACC as a partner. “Nobody’s got a crystal ball, but I think the only way for this state to address more students is for community colleges to stay very, very engaged.”
Fall 2002 enrollments at Central Texas’ three largest public universities:
• University of Texas: Record 52,273 students, including record freshman class of 7,936. Target enrollment cutoff is 48,000.
• Texas A&M University: 45,083 students. Target cutoff is 45,000.
• Southwest Texas State University: Record 25,065 students. No target cutoff.
• 2002: 25,065 • 2001: 23,549
• 2000: 22,462 • 1999: 21,798
Numbers from the state’s higher education plan, called Closing the Gaps by the Year 2015. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board adopted the plan in October 2000. It is designed to close the gaps in student participation, student success and research:
The 2000 census showed about 250,000 residents in Williamson County and 1.25 million in the Austin-San Marcos metropolitan statistical area. By 2015, those areas are projected to have more than 280,000 and 1.4 million residents, respectively.