Senate approves two-year tuition freeze

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Institutions have to meet metrics to change prices after freeze.

By Wally Perez

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

The Texas Senate voted in favor of a bill, which would freeze tuition at public institutions of higher education for two years, followed by the placement of limitations on any increases afterwards.

The hearings were streamed live at www.senate.state.tx.us/av-archive.php.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 19 by a 29-2 vote Tuesday. During minor discussion, a floor amendment was added that lowered how much schools would be able to increase tuition after the freeze.

Originally, the SB 19 permitted schools to increase tuition by 3 percent but was lowered to 1 percent, with any adjustments to inflation over the past two academic years.

State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, authored SB 19, and said one of the concerns is rising tuition costs, during a Higher Education Committee meeting March 22. While some administrative spending is inevitable, the focus must remain on instruction and educating students.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, called for the amendment.

“I do think there should be significant enhancements of what we expect from our state public institutions regarding performance,” Schwertner said Tuesday. “ … I also think it’s very important that we look toward accountability and accessibility, which is obviously directly tied to the cost of accessing higher education.”

Schwertner said the change was a more reasonable rate of growth because of the cost faced by Texas families, while better maintaining affordability and accessibility to the state’s higher education institutions.

Seliger disagreed with the amendment, arguing that Schwertner was the one who added the 3 percent figure two years ago when a similar bill passed, but died in the House.

Seliger asked the Senate to vote no on the amendment because tuition is already low at some universities across Texas.

“I’m afraid that we would provide a disincentive to really meet the guidelines set down here and very much lessen the effect of performance based tuition,” Seliger said.

Seliger has also filed a bill similar to SB 19, Senate Bill 543, which 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.

SB 19 provides measures for which tuition cannot change unless universities meet them, which are put in place by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, such as increases to graduation numbers, and decreases to administrative costs.

Additionally, the coordinating board will develop standards for the target levels of performance measures in which institutions are evaluated.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, expressed concern over the bill, reminding Seliger that tuition freezes are discussed almost every session, and the fear of having a tuition freeze creates an incentive for universities to jack up their fees.

Nichols said a performance matrix by which schools can be evaluated and awarded is a good idea, but schools that work hard to keep costs down then suffer with a 10 percent budget cut along with the performance matrix is concerning.

Robert Duncan, chancellor for the Texas Tech University System, voiced concern over the bills like SB 19 at a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting March 22.

Renu Khator, chancellor for the University of Houston System, 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.

Nichols said he wanted to make sure Seliger was keeping those universities in mind so they don’t crumble.

Seliger said those schools work hard to keep tuition low and abide by some of the best things in higher education.

He addressed Nichols’ concern, reminding him that there is no incentive in the bill to increase tuition in the near term because it states explicitly schools cannot do it in the next year.

“If anyone thinks there is going to be a rush to increase tuition in the 2017-18 year, that can’t happen,” Seliger said.

“I am determined to do everything we can to keep those universities whole.”

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