Tuition at Texas universities has more than doubled in the 12 years since state lawmakers authorized colleges to set their own rates.
Now legislators are pushing to take back that control. It’s not a new idea, but it stands a chance for the first time since 2003, when the state deregulated tuition, largely because it enjoys rare bipartisan support.
At least three lawmakers, including Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis, have filed bills to re-regulate tuition in some way. The chair of the Senate’s higher education committee Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, plans to pitch tying tuition increases to performance by colleges – essentially making them earn a tuition bump. And Dan Patrick, the state’s new lieutenant governor, said last week that the “issue will be addressed this session.”
“It marries together Democrats, who want to make higher education more affordable, and tea party conservatives who are inherently suspicious of higher education,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “In some ways this is a way for the Legislature to do something about education, but with relatively low cost.”
Deregulation essentially transferred costs to the universities and their students. That’s something Texas and other states have done for decades.
A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says students are now paying public colleges more than the states are. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of the average public colleges’ revenue in 2012, up from 17 percent in 2003, the study found. That surpassed state funding, which accounted for 23 percent of schools’ budgets in 2012.
Texas now funds less than 20 percent of the University of Texas at Austin’s budget, for example, compared to 85 percent in the 1970s. State funding accounts for 22 percent of UH’s budget now, compared to 61 percent in 1985. Students now pay for 42 percent of the budget, compared to 11 percent 30 years ago.
While Ellis says he will advocate for additional funding for higher education, his bill to end deregulation is actually the stricter of the two senate bills that have been filed so far, because it would cap tuition at 2015 rates and require universities to get legislative approval to raise it. Mary González, a House Democrat from Clint, has proposed a similar bill.
The other Senate bill, by Schwertner, would allow for annual tuition increases based on inflation. Ellis and Schwertner have talked about finding a compromise bill, but Ellis said last week that he wouldn’t support inflation-based increases, which he said is “almost like institutionalizing the thievery from middle class families.”
The third possible route to re-regulation could fold in another popular higher education proposal: tying funding for universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. Seliger said he plans to file a bill that would tie tuition increases to those performance measures. He calls it “performance-based tuition.”
Seliger pointed out that while tuition has increased at a faster clip since deregulation, lawmakers weren’t doing much to keep it down before. From 1994 to 2002, tuition and fees went up 102 percent.
“It was still increasing at a pretty good rate, because people wanted to see universities make big increases in improvement,” he said.
See here for the background. Sen. Schwertner’s bill is SB233. Neither Sens. Ellis nor Seliger have filed their bills yet, but Sen. Ellis’ bill from 2013 was SB125; I would presume what he files this year is identical or almost identical to it. I prefer his approach, because the problem is that the state is not contributing enough to cover the cost of higher education. That was the deal made to cut costs in 2003; it was rotten then, and it’s rotten now. I don’t expect Sen. Ellis’ approach to be adopted, but now that Republicans have come to regret their past actions – most likely because they’ve finally started hearing it from their constituents – I have some hope that he and Sen. Schwertner can work out a deal that at least comes closer to his approach.
UPDATE: As noted in the comments, Sen. Ellis’ bill is SB255.