Colleges across the state could be forced to make significant cuts in the next couple years as the state Senate has proposed bills to alleviate tuition costs at public universities while also suggesting a budget that could cut funding for colleges by 8 percent.
Prioritized by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the 85th session of the Texas Legislature, Senate Bills 18 and 19 have aimed to decrease tuition costs at public universities, which are rising an average of 6 percent per year, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The board estimates the average cost of tuition, fees, books, transportation, room and board and other expenses for a full-time undergraduate student is $28,639 per year.
For Plano ISD students, these rising costs are affecting how students are planning to achieve a higher education.
As graduating students throughout PISD prepare for increasingly expensive higher education costs, school counselors are helping them explore options to keep those costs to a minimum.
For counselors, this often means visiting with college representatives to compile available scholarships from area universities. The district makes as much of this scholarship information available to students as possible on a district-run website, PISD Counseling Director Jana Hancock said, including scholarships offered by local organizations.
PISD school counselors also help students navigate the differences in cost between in-state public schools—where tuition is partially subsidized—and private or out-of-state schools, Hancock said.
“A lot of it has to do with making students aware of all of the different options that they have,” Hancock said. “In terms of tuition, if they are aware that they can go to a public school for less than the cost of a private or out-of-state school, that education is a large part of helping them understand what all the different options are.”
According to the Institute for College Access and Success, in 2015 the average student loan debt in Texas was $27,324.
Students have to file financial aid forms as a dependent student until they are 24 years of age or meet independent status through other avenues, such as both parents being deceased, being in foster care after the age of 13, or having a child for which they support more than 50 percent.
Despite decreases in state aid and rapid tuition growth over the years, Texas ranks seventh nationwide in higher education affordability, according to the 2016 College Affordability Diagnosis from the Penn Graduate School of Education. Students enrolling in a public four-year university in Texas need to borrow more than $4,400 annually to pay for expenses.
Raymund Paredes, higher education commissioner for the THECB, said one of the greatest challenges for colleges and families is finding enough funding to cover all students in need of tuition relief. He said as grant money on the state and federal levels falls short, higher education officials will have to find solutions.
“We recognize that the current model of relying on either federal grant aid or state grant aid, primarily through the Texas grant program, will be very difficult to sustain in the future,” he said.
Finding an alternative
As costs continue to rise, PISD college advisers are encouraging students to take more dual-credit courses and attend community colleges prior to transferring to a four-year university, Hancock said.
“They can spend two years at Collin College and transfer to a four-year university, and get out of college with no loan debt—which is a huge problem nationwide,” Hancock said.
PISD is one of many Collin County school districts that partners with Collin College to offer dual-credit courses. According to Dr. Brenda Kihl, executive vice president at Collin College, dual-credit course enrollment increased 71 percent from 2012 to 2016.
“Every course you take is about a $400 savings,” Kihl said. “Dual credit means that they are taking a college credit, but they are also meeting the high school requirements for that course. We have a large number of students who are graduating high school with 30 college credits—that’s a whole year of college.”
Taking dual-credit courses is one of the most effective ways for students to cut down on costs—and more Plano students are taking advantage of them in recent years, Hancock said.
“If they can take these dual-credit courses and earn credit now, that saves them a lot of money,” Hancock said. “We’re expanding our dual-credit program and it’s growing. Next year, it looks like it’s going to grow quite a bit. So that’s becoming a more popular option, and I think part of that is due to the rise in tuition costs.”
The rising number of PISD students who are seeking dual credit has led district officials to discuss potentially covering the cost of books for students eligible for free or reduced lunch programs, Hancock said.
Collin College already offers free tuition for students on free or reduced lunch, leaving these students to pay only the cost of textbooks for the courses.
“Our community is continuing to diversify and our students’ needs are equally diverse,” Hancock said. “We really have to work with students and families individually and see what’s going to fit them best in terms of the college fit, and that would include the affordability factor. We’ve always had a large number of students start their college career at Collin College. Part of that is the cost.”
Collin College, with campuses in McKinney, Allen, Plano, Frisco and Rockwall, currently offers a 12-credit hour semester for just over $500. In comparison, a 12-credit hour semester at The University of Texas is $5,055 and a 12-credit hour semester at Southern Methodist University is $26,249.
“This is one semester, so if a student comes to Collin for two years, they can save $20,000 [compared with The University of Texas], which is basically a brand new car,” Kihl said. “That’s the biggest financial impact a community college can make.”
Kihl said Collin College credits transfer to Texas public universities. The college also has partnerships with major universities, including SMU, The University of North Texas, Texas Women’s University, Texas A&M University-Commerce, The University of Texas-Dallas and Texas Tech University.
The partnerships vary by university, but most allow students to attend classes at the Collin Higher Education Center in McKinney while obtaining a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree from one of the partner universities. Students pay the tuition rates for the colleges, but Kihl said the option allows students to stay at home longer, which can be a cost savings.
The partnership is not only offered to Collin College students—any student registered for classes at the offering university can register for classes at the higher education center. As it stands now, only those degrees listed on the higher education center website are being offered, but more degrees may be added in the future.
Advanced Placement courses are another option for students looking to earn college credit for far less than the cost of college tuition, and the district works to make these as accessible as possible, Hancock said.
Addressing the rising costs
To address the rising cost of tuition at universities across the state, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SB 18 and SB 19 in January. SB 18 would eliminate a rule requiring public universities to use a portion of tuition revenue to fund scholarships for students with financial need, therefore potentially allowing colleges to use the funds in other areas. SB 19 would freeze tuition prices for students for two years. Neither bill would apply to community colleges.
“Senate Bills 18 and 19 are critical to ensure higher education tuition and fees do not continue to outpace what hardworking Texans earn,” Patrick said. “Making college more affordable for all Texans continues to be one of my top priorities this legislative session.”
Another bill, SB 543, also filed by Seliger, would require state schools to meet performance-based metrics before being allowed to raise tuition. Language from this bill has since been added to SB 19.
Since House Bill 3015 was passed by the 78th Texas Legislature—allowing public universities to vary tuition rates—tuition has risen at public universities from 2003-15 by as much as 178 percent. Students paid a statewide average of $1,687 more per semester in 2015 than they did in 2003, according to the THECB.
However, the universities attribute such increases to a decrease in state funding per student, enrollment growth and an increase in costs.
As of press time May 19, SB 18 and SB 19 had been passed by the Senate and were in the House under review. If passed, these laws would go into effect Sept. 1.
Paredes said it would be difficult to assess how the bills could affect universities and students. He said attempts in other states to freeze tuition costs have only resulted in temporarily offsetting costs.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what was included in a cost estimate from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The estimate of $28,639 includes tuition and fees as well as books, transportation, room and board and other expenses.