Senate Committee passes two tuition-related bills

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Five bills share common goal of affordable tuition.

By Wally Perez

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

The Texas State Senate Committee on Higher Education passed two revisions of tuition-related bills to the Senate floor during a committee meeting Monday.

Three bills remain pending, and all five bills aim for keeping college affordable for students and families.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chairs the committee, said one of the concerns is rising tuition costs; while some administrative spending is inevitable, the focus must remain on instruction and educating students.

Seliger authored Senate Bill 19 and Senate Bill 543, the two bills that passed Monday after revisions were made after the March 22 meeting. SB 543 was unanimously passed, while SB 19 had a single no vote by state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Originally, SB 19 would freeze tuition costs from 2016-17 for four years beginning fall 2018. The amended bill takes the tuition freeze and reduces the duration from four to two years.

SB 543 would implement performance-based tuition limitations for institutions as well as a temporary limitation for those institutions. SB 543 would require institutions to meet six out of 11 targets before they can increase the cost.

The bill was amended to clarify language regarding performance metrics and long-term goals, since Seliger said the board of regents doesn’t engage in negotiative rule making, the institutions do.

“The Legislature must ensure that the cost of a college degree remains affordable to students and families,” Seliger said in a committee meeting March 22. “This is an essential element to the aspirations I think most of us, if not all of us have.”

In that same committee meeting, State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, author of Senate Bill 442, said his bill returns control of college tuition to the Texas Legislature, rather than governing boards within their respective institutions.

In 2003, the Legislature passed House Bill 3015, which allowed those unelected governing boards of public universities to set higher tuition rates. Prior to that, the Legislature had regulatory authority to set tuition rates.

According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, universities began increasing designated tuition in spring 2004. Rodríguez said the average cost of higher education has risen sharply as a result.

Rodríguez said increasing costs are forcing families to take on much larger debt loads to attend state schools while pricing others out of higher education altogether, while state funding for higher education has declined.

“We’ve seen skyrocketed tuition increases,” Rodríguez said. “Before deregulation, families could hold lawmakers accountable for increases, now they’re shifting blame of any increases to the universities’ boards while higher education is being underfunded.”

Rodríguez said the state’s per-student funding has declined 27 percent since 2003, all while increasing expectations for students’ performance as per the 60x30TX plan, which aims for 60 percent of 25-34-year-old students to obtain a certificate or degree by 2030.

Additionally, tuition would freeze at amounts charged during the 2017-18 academic year.

The bill would force the Legislature to authorize any increases in tuition after that academic year and once again be directly accountable to students and families for their funding of higher education.

“This bill would put the burden right back on us lawmakers to make investments in higher education that ensure low and middle income students aren’t priced out,” Rodríguez said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed Senate Bill 250, which would freeze tuition rates at public universities and limit increases in fees and designated tuition charge by public institutions.

Robert Duncan, chancellor for the Texas Tech University System, voiced concern over the bills relating to freezing tuition during testimonies given by university chancellors across Texas at the committee meeting March 22.

Other chancellors included Lee Jackson, University of North Texas System; Renu Khator, University of Houston System; and William McRaven, University of Texas System.

Duncan said freezing tuition comes with an inequitable result.

“You’re freezing at different rates and you may be punishing those who’ve been conservative — more conservative — yet those who have been aggressive in raising tuition … you’re allowing them to keep the spoils of what they did,” Duncan said.

Duncan said a freeze causes aberrations once it’s over.

Khator agreed with Duncan, saying tuition freezes hurt the students they are meant to help in the long run, which would result in fewer funds to hire faculty, among other things.

Duncan referred to a tuition freeze in 2007, when Texas Tech froze tuition that caused an increase in the following years because the Legislature didn’t respond to needs, such as paying faculty to keep the student-to-faculty ratio in line.

McRaven said tuition in the UT System was $500 less in 2014 than it was in 2004 and tuition was lower in Austin than at six other public universities in Texas in 2016.

McRaven said he expects a 2 percent increase in tuition in 2017 because of inflation, but overall the university hasn’t seen much change since 2012.

“We want to remain affordable, no doubt about that, but we also must stay competitive,” McRaven said.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, author of Senate Bill 1323, told the committee when popular elements of university governance, such as accountability, affordability, cost effectiveness, efficiency and transparency is discussed, they must be in relation to excellence.

SB 1323 would prohibit general academic institutions from increasing academic costs, such as the combination of tuition and mandatory fees, except to make up any difference between core operational costs and state funding appropriations.

“Excellence is expensive, especially in higher education,” Zaffirini said.

“Our goal should be to fund higher education at a level that ensures excellence as universities pursue their missions, which include teaching and learning, research that includes discovery and invention, and general contribution to the field of knowledge.”

Zaffirini filed a similar bill in 2009 that died in the House, leaving her unoptimistic about SB 1323. She told Seliger she didn’t have a committee substitute as a result.

“If I thought the bill were going anywhere, I’d have one,” Zaffirini said.

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