Senate pushes for affordable tuition

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Update, March 27: Two bills which would regulate the cost of tuition are headed to the Senate floor.

A revised version of Senate Bills 543 and 19, both authored by State Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, were passed by the Senate Committee of Higher Education on Monday.

“This is just coming at the same subject from two different directions,” Seliger said.  

SB 543, which passed unanimously, would require institutions to meet 6 of 11 performance based standards before they could raise the cost of tuition by up to 3 percent a year. Seliger said the intent of the bill was to push institutions to make incremental improvements in areas such as graduation rates and average length of enrollment.

The adopted version of SB 19 would freeze tuition rates for two years beginning in the fall of 2018 without adjustments for inflation. The original bill had the freeze in place for four years, or until the spring of 2022. Only Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, voted in opposition of the bill.

Orignal story: The fast-rising cost of college tuition was the focus of the Senate Committee of Higher Education on Wednesday, when members left pending five bills aimed at limiting how much an institution could charge.

In 2003, the Texas Legislature turned over control of tuition prices to individual systems’ boards of regents. During the years since, tuition costs around the state have risen more than 147 percent, according to a bill analysis by state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. 

Each of the bills presented would move varying levels of control back to the Legislature. The bills take different and sometimes competing approaches to address college affordability, however, Seliger, the committee chairman, said keeping college affordable is a shared goal. 

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

Seliger authored two of the tuition bill options, including Senate Bill 19, which has been named one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s legislative priorities. SB 19 would freeze tuition rates for four years beginning in the fall of 2018. 

If the bill passes, universities would not be allowed to charge more for tuition and fees than current prices in the 2016-2017 school year.  

This year, the average cost of tuition at UT for Texas residents was between $4,813-$5,530, and the average cost for an out-of-state student was between $17,131-$19,635. 

However, universities would still be able to increase tuition rates for next school year, and individual students may still see changes in the cost of their tuition if their specific circumstances change. 

SB 543, also authored by Seliger, is a performance-based approach that would require institutions to meet six of 11 targets before they can increase tuition costs. If an institution meets these targets, they would be limited to increasing tuition by 3 percent each year plus inflation. 

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would set the targets, including four and six year graduation rates, the number of degrees awarded, and the average length of a student’s enrollment. 

Seliger said this approach would allow the targets to be tailored to each institution’s mission and needs. A similar bill passed in the Senate last session, but died in the House.

UT System Chancellor William McRaven said in his testimony that universities should have a say in writing the targets, but agreed this was a more personalized approach. 

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, proposed complete legislative control with SB 422, which would prohibit schools from setting tuition any higher than its rate in 2017-2018, unless approved by the Legislature. Rodriguez said this would allow families to hold their elected officials accountable to high tuition costs.

Renu Khator, University of Houston system chancellor, said limits on tuition increases could end up hurting students if universities can’t hire more faculty or have to cut career or mental health services.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed Senate Bill 1323 which would allow universities to raise the cost of tuition to make up the difference between operating costs and state funding. Zaffirini said she filed an identical bill in 2009 that died in the House and indicated she was unoptimistic about this year’s bill. 

“Excellence is expensive, including excellence in higher education,” Zaffirini said. “When the Legislature does not fund higher education adequately, universities have to turn to revenue sources such as the federal government, or philanthropy, or raise tuition. 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.” 

In 2016, McRaven said tuition and fees at UT Austin are lower than at six other public institutions across the state and that tuition has seen “little to no” increase since 2012. 

McRaven said for next school year, students could expect tuition to increase two percent because of inflation. The board of regents has also approved increases up to four percent after each institution demonstrated need for increased revenue to improve performance, McRaven said.

“We want to remain affordable, no doubt about that, but we also must stay competitive,” McRaven said. “This balancing of affordability and excellence is critical to us.”