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By W. Gardner Selby September 7, 2018

Greg Abbott far short on vow to lift 5 Texas universities into nation's top 10

Weeks before his 2015 swearing-in as governor of Texas, Greg Abbott told reporters, "we will  begin the process of elevating Texas higher education higher and better than it's ever been before."

Flashing the fingers of his right hand, Abbott said that "five of the top 10 public universities in the country are in California with none being from Texas. We will begin the process of ensuring that we elevate some of Texas's elite colleges and universities into the top 10 nationally."

At the time, we recorded Abbott's elevation declaration as another promise to be tracked on the PolitiFact Texas Abbott-O-Meter, where we have gauged movement on dozens of his campaign vows.

We also speculated that the goal of Texas universities leapfrogging into the nation's top 10 might not be achievable.

Abbott had earlier cited as substantive U.S. News and World Report's then-latest rankings of state colleges. The magazine's September 2014 report ranked five University of California institutions among the nation's top 10 public universities: the schools in Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Davis and Santa Barbara. Texas' highest-ranked public college, The University of Texas at Austin, landed 17th; Texas A&M University was 25th.

Forbes, another publication that ranks colleges, placed UT-Austin at No. 10 among the Best Public Colleges 2014 as of July 2014 -- provided you disregard Forbes' rankings of the nation's military academies in positions 1 through 3 nationally.

In 2014, U.S. News ranked UT-Austin 53rd among universities nationally. Houston's private Rice University ran ahead, ranking 19th. Forbes ranked Rice 32nd among U.S. universities, placing UT-Austin 76th.

The U.S. News rankings of the two Texas schools hadn't changed much since the universities were first ranked (UT in 2000, A&M in 2004), according to data compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Out of over 100 national universities, UT-Austin ranked 44th in 2000 and 53rd in 2004.

So, big changes since?

Not really.

No Texas universities ranked in the nation's top 10 in the 2018 rankings of national universities released by U.S. News in September 2017. Among public universities, UT-Austin landed in a tie for 18th and Texas A&M University tied for 25th. Among all national universities, the publication said, Rice University ranked No. 14.

Forbes in August 2018 ranked UT-Austin 16th among the nation's public universities in its 2018 rankings with the institution placing No. 74 overall. Forbes pegged Texas A&M University in College Station at 25th among public institutions and at No. 108 overall.

Bright note: A national ranking for 2018 by Washington Monthly placed Texas A&M's flagship at No. 11, just outside the nation's top 10. It otherwise ranked UT-Austin 75th and Rice University 77th.

The magazine says it bases its rankings of four-year schools on a pile of factors, including graduation rates and median earnings 10 years after entering college, with the goal of focusing on each institution's "contribution to the public good in three broad categories." Its declared  categories: social mobility (recruiting and graduating low-income students); research (producing cutting-edge scholarship and PhDs); and service (encouraging students to give something back to their country).

We didn't hear back from Abbott about progress on this promise.

Separately, Raymund Paredes, the Texas commissioner of higher education, told us by phone that it's highly unlikely if not impossible for Texas to place more than UT-Austin in the top 10 of the U.S. News rankings any time soon--and, Paredes said, he's recommended that Abbott consider broader metrics to evaluate the state's colleges.

Paredes noted, though, that on Abbott's watch, the number of Texas universities independently deemed research-strong doubled. In 2016, as noted in a Texas Tribune news story, four Texas universities joined four others in the state already among more than 100 U.S. institutions given the highest ranking for research by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The eight Texas universities: UT-Austin, Texas A&M, Rice, the University of Houston plus Texas Tech University, the University of North Texas, UT-Arlington and UT-Dallas.

We also asked Ken Ashworth, a former Texas commissioner of higher education, if it's possible for Abbott's top-10 promise to be fulfilled--and if so, how. Ashworth replied by email: "It is beyond any reasonable expectation in American higher education that even two Texas universities could place in the top 10, not even one."

Ashworth elaborated: "To pursue the goal of Texas replacing half of the top 10, we would have to assume that every other university in the nation would stand still and stop striving to achieve or hold their placement. With decades of underfunding of Texas colleges and universities, the state would first have to make up for all its past neglect."

We also reconnected with Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, who formerly helped construct Forbes' rankings. By phone, Vedder said it's conceivable that UT-Austin makes the top 10 of a ranking within a decade. But Vedder deemed Abbott's five-institution goal unrealistic, saying: "Abbott is whistling Dixie or he's smoking something."

We rate this previously unrated Abbott vow a PROMISE BROKEN.

Promise Broken  – The promise has not been fulfilled,

Our Sources

Story,  "In Context: Greg Abbott's vow to lift Texas universities into nation's top 10," PolitiFact Texas, Jan. 1, 2015

Web page, "National University Rankings," "Top Public Schools, National Universities," U.S. News and World Report, Sept. 12, 2017

Web pages, Forbes, 2018 U.S. college rankings, "Top 25 Public Colleges 2018," University of Texas at Austin profile page, Texas A&M University profile page, Forbes, Aug. 21, 2018

Ranking of national universities, Washington Monthly, Aug. 27, 2018

Email, Ken Ashworth, former commissioner, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Aug. 30, 2018

Phone interview, Raymund Paredes, commissioner of higher education, THECB, Sept. 4, 2018

Phone interview, Richard Vedder, distinguished professor of economics emeritus, Ohio University, Sept. 4, 2018

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