Published 10:31 am Friday, March 24, 2017

The Senate Higher Education Committee considered a number of approaches to combat rising tuition at public universities in Texas.   Since giving boards of regents the power to set tuition rates in 2003, the average tuition and fees at public universities has risen on average 148 percent, increasing the burden on family finances. “At a time when the job market demands most persons have a post-secondary degree, certificate or credential, it’s a struggle for families to afford it, yet it has great value to them,” said committee Chair and Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger. “The Legislature must ensure that the cost of a college degree remains affordable for students and families.”

In 2003, the Legislature voted to deregulate tuition, giving college boards of regents the authority to set their own tuition rate. This was in response to worries that growing entitlement programs would squeeze out discretionary budgets for higher education that relied mostly on state funding for operations. Texas Tech University Chancellor Robert Duncan was the Senator for Lubbock at the time. “In order for us to maintain a competitive higher education industry in Texas and do what we think is right for our future and for the young people of our state, we made the decision to deregulate,” he told the committee on Wednesday.

Various proposals were submitted, such as a four-year tuition freeze, tying the rate of increase to inflation, giving back tuition authority to the Legislature, and linking the level of state appropriations to the amount a university could increase tuition. One bill, SB 543 by Seliger, would create a series of performance measures. Meeting these goals would be required to raise tuition. “The legislation is intended to require institutions to earn tuition increases beyond the rate of inflation,” he said.

Though the exact performance goals are still being negotiated, they would likely include things like four- and six-year graduation rates, number of full time students, degrees awarded to at-risk students, and so on. It’s possible that universities would have the flexibility to choose which targets they want to pursue, based on differences in student population, university mission and other variables that differ from institution to institution. The Higher Education Coordinating Board would determine the exact metrics and how to measure them, and the bill would cap tuition increases at one percent plus inflation through 2020 while those standards are being developed. All proposals remained pending before the committee as members work with stakeholders to further develop the legislation.

Also in committee Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee took a final vote on its version of the state budget for 2018-2019.   Committee Chair and Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson praised members for their hard work, and said she intends to bring the budget before the full Senate next Tuesday. The bill would fully fund the Foundation School Program with an additional $2.6 billion to cover enrollment growth and funds to extend emergency funding for Child Protective Services to maintain a pay raise and keep caseload down. In all it spends more than $106 billion in state general revenue over the next two years.   San Antonio Senator Carlos Uresti said the bill is a good first step as the Senate prepares to negotiate with the House on the final version of the budget. “It’s a lean budget, but I would submit to you this is not a mean budget, like we’ve seen in the past where we’ve had some of those tougher times,” he said. The Finance Committee approved the bill on a vote of fifteen to zero.

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