Published 8:54 am Monday, April 10, 2017

The Senate passed two bills this week that could impact the cost of college tuition for Texas families. In 2003, the Legislature voted to allow universities to set their own tuition rate. Since that time, the average cost of college has more than doubled. Many lawmakers feel that decision was a mistake, and the Legislature needs to step back in. “The policy of deregulation has failed Texas students, it has failed Texas families and I believe it needs to be reversed,” said Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner on Tuesday. “I believe that there’s a responsibility of affordability of higher education that rests with us.”

SB 19, by Amarillo Senator and Higher Education Committee Chair Kel Seliger, would still allow colleges to raise tuition, but they could only exceed the rate of inflation if they hit targets set for them by the bill.   The bill sets out eleven different metrics, such as four- and six-year graduation rate, average time to graduation, and degrees awarded to at-risk students. Universities would have to hit six of them to increase tuition.   Even then, any tuition hike would be limited to no more than one percent plus the rate of inflation. The original bill would’ve allowed a three percent increase, but an amendment by Schwertner cut that by two-thirds.   Tuition and fees at state colleges would be frozen over the next two years while the Higher Education Coordinating Board determines what the actual target numbers should be for individual institutions.

A second bill, SB 18 also by Seliger, would end a program that earmarks a portion of tuition for financial aid. Created the same year as the Legislature deregulated tuition to off-set anticipated increases in the cost of higher education, the set-aside program requires every university to set aside 15 percent of designated tuition, that is tuition set by the universities, and use that money to provide financial aid to needy families. Seliger doesn’t believe it’s fair to require some students, many of whom are working jobs or taking out loans to pay for school, to subsidize other students’ tuition. “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 doesn’t directly lower tuition, but it was amended to create a new financial aid grant program open to schools that cut tuition by at least five percent.

Also this week, the Senate approved a measure that the author believes will put Texas at the forefront of the battle against sexual violence on college campuses. SB 576, by Houston Senator Joan Huffman, comes in the wake of increased attention on the prevalence and lack of reporting of rapes and other types of sexual assault at Texas universities.   It would implement strong reporting requirements for college administrators for the incidents and responses to sexual assault at their institutions. “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.”

Her bill would require university employees to report all incidents of sexual assault or face termination and possible legal action. Additionally, university presidents would have to make comprehensive biannual reports to boards of regents of the number of campus sexual assaults and the results of investigations into them. Those reports would also be available to the media and general public. Moreover, elected student officers, such as fraternity and sorority presidents, would also have to report incidents of sexual assault under penalty of suspension or even expulsion.

The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 10 at 2 p.m.