KETR

Lawmakers push to reclaim control over college tuition

Jan 27, 2015

Some Texas lawmakers want to reclaim the right to set college tuition rates.  The legislature had given that authority to the schools in 2003.  But now, higher tuition costs are making college unaffordable for a section of Texas students and that is one of the reasons some lawmakers are rethinking that decision.

It’s a cold wintry day on the University of Texas campus in Austin,  the bells from the school’s fabled clock tower echo throughout campus.   Trevor Goodchild, a senior majoring in geography,  is bundled up as he heads for the financial aid office. 

He stands in line, waiting to find out when his student loan will go through.

Goodchild, a full-time student, says his tuition and fees average $5,400 each semester.  He pays for most of that with a low-interest government loan, but that doesn’t cover all of his costs. So He also takes out private loans, which are more expensive.

Some Texas lawmakers are seeking to regain control of state college tuition rates.
Credit NPR

“What I’m left with is this compromise.  How am I going to eke out an existence on what’s left over from my loans after tuition is taken out, and also find a way to support myself when rent is higher, the cost of everything is higher”, asked Goodchild.

Twelve years ago, state lawmakers began allowing public universities to set their own tuition rates so they could cover a funding gap caused by the legislature’s cuts to the higher education budget in 2003 and the years that followed.

Since then, tuition rates in Texas have skyrocketed by an average 107 percent, and that jump has prompted a bipartisan effort in the Senate to let the legislature once again control tuition.

Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis has filed a bill that would allow lawmakers to control tuition for at least two years.  He says the cost of college has shot up so dramatically state grants don’t cover expenses for low income students.  Ellis says more students are taking on additional debt.

“One reason why a Texas Grant won’t cover a person’s full ride is because tuition was deregulated, and then the state couldn’t continue to match the financial commitments that were made to cover Texas Grants,” says Ellis.

He went on to add, “I agree universities need more money, but they need to come up here and make their case to the Legislature just like every other interest group, and hopefully the Legislature will respond.”

The idea of the Legislature controlling state tuition rates again is something that also has the support of Texas’ new Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Since we deregulated tuition over a decade ago, it simply has been a failure. Middle class families can’t even afford to send their child to school. Too many students are graduating with too much debt,” Patrick had stated during a January press conference where he laid out his legislative priorities.

The Lt. Governor says universities should plan on decreasing tuition costs this year.

But in the House, Speaker Joe Straus isn’t as optimistic about the Legislature taking control of tuition rates.

“I haven’t been one to call for over regulation in tuition.  The Legislature hasn’t been able to keep up with the growth in our higher education and I personally thought it was a little bit hypocritical to say, ‘Well you must not raise tuition,’ while at the same time, we aren’t keeping up with the funding,” says Straus.

UT Systems Vice Chancellor Barry McBee argues that schools have done their best to make college affordable and that the increased tuition rates have been more modest in recent years.

“Every one of us in higher education would concede that the tuition increases after 2003 were significant, and I think that was largely expected by both higher education and the legislature. I think the key point from our perspective is to look at the more recent history,” McBee says.

McBee cites Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board data that shows the average cost of tuition has increased 71 percent in the first six years following deregulation, but only slightly since then. He also points to the lack of state funds as a reason to keep deregulation in Texas.

“If you look at the state appropriations on a per student basis, factoring in inflation, we are not yet back to the level of state support that we were at in 2003,” says McBee.

UT senior Goodchild says his biggest concern is getting a good job after college so he can begin erasing some of his student loan debt.

“That has been an increasing black cloud above my head, because what you see a lot of times is students go to UT or any other major university with stars in their eyes, they think this is going to be great, my life is taken care of; I just get that certificate, I just get that piece of paper, but then you fast forward a few years later and you see faded 28-year olds disenchanted with the educational dream, working at call-centers, because they couldn’t find a foothold in their career. I don’t want to be one of those people that is at the mercy of that kind of situation,” says Goodchild.

He adds he’d like to see tuition re-regulated if that would help Texas students struggling with the cost of a college education.

According to the financial aid office at UT-Austin, 59 percent of  students at UT receive some form of financial aid to cover tuition and other college costs.