AUSTIN, Texas — Before the pandemic hit, college and university officials hoped this legislative session would be their turn for a big investment. Higher education leaders lobbied lawmakers to focus on them this time around after huge investments in Texas public schools last session. 

But the attention quickly shifted when the economy tanked due to COVID-related shutdowns. Last summer, the governor directed nearly all state agencies, including higher education, to cut their budgets by 5%. Now, public colleges and universities are urging lawmakers to restore those cuts and pitching themselves as the place for economic recovery. 

"Higher ed is the point of the spear for the recovery of our Texas economy and what's going to ensure we're going to be competitive into the future," Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller said on Capital Tonight Monday. 

Keller says he's particularly concerned about potential cuts to state financial aid programs since more students have qualified for need-based aid due to lost jobs and income. 

"This really wouldn't be the time to pull the rug out from our Texas students and I think our policymakers understand that," he said. 

Keller says federal stimulus funding has helped, but more state money is needed to avoid relying more heavily on tuition and fees. Texas' investment in higher education has steadily decreased over the past decade. 

"The federal funding has been critically important," he said. "But it hasn't begun to cover the full cost. We're still ramping our arms around it, but the costs have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars to our institutions, especially this last spring when they had to send students home and change their operations almost overnight...This has been the most significant disruption to our Texas colleges and universities since the end of the second World War." 

Click the video link above to watch our full interview with Commissioner Keller. ​​