January 05, 2009
College issues

Once we finally do get past the Speaker's race, various college-related issues will be on the agenda for the Lege.

[E]xpect lots of debate about freezing tuition when the Legislature convenes in mid-January.

But with dozens of bills dealing with higher education already filed, it won't be the only topic under consideration. Other measures look to expand financial aid, cut the cost of textbooks, make schools more accountable and help veterans attend college.

Legislators often pay lip service to higher education, but several say this year may be the tipping point, sparked by a middle-class outcry over tuition rates, national reports blasting lack of affordability and access, and a growing acknowledgment that Texas needs more and better universities to serve its growing population.

One bill already filed would freeze tuition at public universities for two years. Another would limit tuition and fee increases to 5 percent a year.

All sound good to cash-strapped families, who saw tuition at Texas' public, four-year schools rise an average of 53 percent in the first four years after legislators allowed them to set their own rates.

But changing the status quo may not be so simple.

Legislators deregulated tuition in 2003 in exchange for cutting state higher education funding during a budget crisis. Public universities rely on a mix of state funding and money from tuition and fees for their operating costs, along with money from endowments, donations and other sources.

State spending has increased since 2003 but hasn't kept up with enrollment growth and inflation.

"It's easy to say, 'Freeze tuition,' " said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee. "I don't think it would be fair to freeze tuition without raising state funding."

Forget fairness. It simply won't be possible to freeze tuition without raising the state's share of funding. The whole reason for tuition deregulation in the first place was to enable the state to cut its funding level back in 2003. You can't have one without the other. The question is where the funding comes from, not just for tuition relief but also for all those other items on the wish list, including Tier 1 status for UH and others. The ends are noble, but what are the means? I think this is a high enough priority that there will be a real effort to answer that question, but for now it's a mystery.

By the way, since the Speaker's race will never be too far from the surface of this session, tuition deregulation was something Tom Craddick pushed for. Even though he won't be wielding the gavel, I can't see him sitting back and watching that work be undone. Maybe he'll go all Talton on the House and become an assassin by point of order. You don't think he's going to go quietly, do you?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 05, 2009 to Budget ballyhoo
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