Published 8:28 pm Friday, February 24, 2017

The Senate Higher Education Committee voted Wednesday in favor of a bill that would end the practice of requiring colleges to use some tuition revenue to offset the cost of tuition for other students. Called “set-asides”, this program was approved in the wake of tuition deregulation in 2003. Since then, opponents have argued it’s a hidden tax unfairly raising the cost of tuition for some while lowering the cost for others. “College affordability is an issue the legislature must address, but we should not do it for some students on the backs of others that may very well be of the same financial status,” said Committee Chair and bill author Kel Seliger of Amarillo.

There are two types of tuition charged at state public universities, statutory and designated. Before tuition deregulation in 2003, only the state could set tuition.   In the 78th Session, the Legislature voted to create designated tuition. That’s essentially what an institution chooses to charge above statutory tuition, which is set at $50 per credit hour for Texas residents. The same year, in order to address fears of rising tuition pricing poorer students out of college, the Legislature created the set aside program, where 15 percent of tuition above statutory levels is reserved in order to help fund tuition for needy families.   According to Commissioner of Higher Education Raymond Paredes that amount averages to $459 per student per year in 2016.

Seliger noted that this bill doesn’t mean that universities would simply cut tuition by 15 percent across the board.  They could continue to collect this tuition voluntarily and use it to offer the same financial aid packages they are currently using. In fact, representatives of most major public universities in Texas appeared before the committee to say they expected to continue to collect those funds and use them for financial aid. But they cautioned that this is contingent on the level of funding they receive from the state.

That raised concerns among some members. They worry that state funds for the upcoming biennium won’t be sufficient to cover costs at universities, and some of those newly freed set-aside funds will go toward basic operations rather than financial aid. “We’re having enormous difficulty dealing with higher education and how we’re going to fund higher education and we’re facing potentially huge cuts into higher education,” said Austin Senator Kirk Watson.   “Candidly, I have zero faith that the state will step in and fill the gap.”

The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Also Wednesday, a group of Senators held a press conference to announce the filing of a bill to prevent immigration enforcement at certain societal institutions. SB 997, by Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia, would prohibit state or local police from enforcing federal immigration law at public schools, hospitals, courthouses and places of worship. “This bill will literally draw a circle of respect and trust around these facilities,” said Garcia. “Even ICE in a 2011 memo designated these spaces safe and said there should be no enforcement.”   She added that people shouldn’t be afraid to go to church or to a hospital, courthouse or their children’s school.   SB 4, passed two weeks ago by the Senate, prohibits local policies barring police officers from assisting in enforcing federal immigration laws, but does include protections for victims of and witnesses to crimes.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, February 27 at 2 p.m.