Senate committee takes first step to eliminate mandatory tuition set asides

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Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

After a back-and-forth debate, a Texas Senate Committee pushed a bill to the Senate floor Wednesday which would do away with the requirement for public institutions of education to participate in the tuition set-aside program. 

The Senate Committee on Higher Education voted 4-2 along party lines in favor of Senate Bill 18, authored by the committee chairman, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

The tuition set-aside program, established by the Legislature in 2003, requires public universities and colleges to put at least 15 percent of tuition cost above $46 per credit hour toward financial aid programs. 

Wednesday’s hearing centered around the uncertainty as to how the legislation would impact the cost of tuition or the availability of financial aid. 

Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said tuition set-asides are “a hidden tax on kids.”

Seliger said while schools would not have to continue the set-aside program under the bill, they could if they wanted to. Keeping college affordable is important, but the Legislature “shouldn’t do it for some students on the backs of others,” Seliger said.

Many proponents to tuition set-asides said the program makes it possible for poorer students to afford an education. 

“The main reason students drop out of college is because of financial aid,” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who was present but didn’t vote, said. “We really don’t know the full impact of the bill.”

Raymund Paredes, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education, said $459 is the average amount set aside annually per student across Texas who pay tuition. If the bill is passed and tuition set-asides are eliminated throughout the state, up to 106,000 students could lose financial aid in 2018, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

During the hearing, representatives from university systems across the state, including the University of Texas, testified and the majority said even without mandatory tuition set-asides, they would continue the program to fund financial aid.

“I can’t imagine schools would simply abandon any desire to help these students stay in school,” Paredes said. 

Under the bill, senators said institutions of higher education could continue to collect the same portion of tuition and put it towards other expenses. 

“The bill’s intent allows the universities to have more flexibility with what to do with that money,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said. 

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said the bill creates uncertainty for students receiving financial aid. Watson said higher education programs might see major “Draconian cuts” this session, and although University representatives plan on keeping set-aside programs now, Watson worried they might change their mind in the future from a lack of funding. 

Watson questioned the purpose of the bill and said it would not guarantee a decrease in the cost of tuition.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said system leaders are willing to work with legislators to review set-aside programs to ensure higher education remains affordable and accessible. 

“The set-asides provide more than $100 million that UT institutions use for financial assistance in the way of grants, work-study programs and scholarships,” LaCoste-Caputo said in an email. “These dollars help thousands of needy and deserving students attend UT universities.”

The next step for SB 18 is consideration on the Senate floor.