Published 8:27 am Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would strengthen reporting requirements for sexual assaults that happen on college campuses in Texas and help state officials grasp the scope of the problem. Bill author and Houston Senator Joan Huffman cited studies that show that one in five female college students are victims of sexual assault, and many more may go unreported. “The people I’m trying to give power to are the victims,” she said. “The nameless, quiet victims who have been afraid to come forward for fear that they were the only one. Their lives have been forever changed and I want to empower them to come forward and for people to care about what’s happening to them.”

Huffman’s bill, SB 576, would require any public or private university employee to immediately report any incidents of sexual assault to the campus Title IX coordinator. It would also extend those reporting requirements to student officers, like officers at fraternities and sororities. The president of a university would report sexual assault statistics each semester to the individual college Boards of Regents, and those reports would be public information. An employee that knowingly fails to report must be terminated and would face criminal charges. Student officers that fail to report face disciplinary action from the school to include at least a one year suspension. “I realize that these reporting requirements may be the most stringent in the country, but it is time we change the culture on college campuses,” said Huffman. “This is totally unacceptable, and Texas must lead the way on this issue.”

Also Tuesday, the Senate approved a bill to make Texas public universities earn tuition increases by meeting a set of predetermined benchmarks.   The rising cost of tuition has been a significant issue every session since the Legislature voted to allow universities to set their own rates in 2003. Higher Education Committee Chair and Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger offered a bill Tuesday that would set up a series of goals that must be met if the institution wants to raise tuition more than the rate of inflation, and freezes tuition at state universities for the next two years.

His bill, SB 19, would require a university to meet six of eleven criteria in order to raise tuition more than one percent plus inflation.   These benchmarks would include metrics like graduation rate, average time to graduation and number of degrees awarded to at-risk students. The Higher Education Coordinating Board would determine the exact numbers individual institutions would need to hit to qualify over the next two years. For those two years, tuition and fees at all general academic institutions in Texas would be capped at current levels.

Finally, the Senate passed another bill by Seliger, SB 18, that would end the tuition set-aside program for universities in Texas. Created in 2003 to offset the projected increase in the cost of college brought about by tuition deregulation, the program requires that all universities reserve 15 percent of designated tuition for financial aid purposes. Seliger says that this essentially requires some students, many who are taking out loans or working jobs to pay for their own classes, to pay for the education of others. “I believe that students and families that are struggling to cover the cost of college should not bear others’ tuition costs,” he said. The bill does not mandate a tuition reduction, but the bill was amended to create a new $30 million financial aid grant program available to institutions that decrease tuition by at least five percent.

SB 18 only received preliminary approval and will still face a final vote, likely on Wednesday, but SB 19 will head to the House for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, April 5 at 11 a.m.