Senate targets tuition reform, proposes cuts


Senate targets tuition reform, proposes cuts

Colleges across the state could be forced to make significant cuts in the next biennium 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, Senate Bills 18 and 19 aim to decrease tuition costs at public universities—such as Sam Houston State University, the University of Houston and Texas A&M University—which are rising an average of 6 percent per year, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

However, the Senate’s proposed budget would also cut state appropriations by $330 million from the last biennium, which could include cuts of tens of millions of dollars in programs, said Garrett Groves, economic opportunity program director for the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“I do appreciate that the Senate is taking an honest look at college affordability [with]the bill on tuition and fees,” Groves said. “My biggest concern is the declining state appropriations.”

Local colleges are concerned about what the legislation and proposed budget cuts could mean for their funding and suggest tuition increases over the past few years are a result of less state aid and the need to provide more services to students.

“We’re being asked to do more with less,” said Matthew Fuller, associate professor of higher education leadership at SHSU.

Targeting Tuition

In January, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, filed SB 18 and SB 19. SB 18 would eliminate a rule requiring public universities to use a portion of tuition revenue to fund scholarships for students with financial need; SB 19 would freeze tuition prices for students for four years.

“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.

Senate targets tuition reform, proposes cuts

Another bill, SB 543, also filed by Seliger, would require state schools to meet performance-based metrics before being allowed to raise tuition.

“Tuition relief and predictability is necessary for Texas students and families,” Seliger said.

Since House Bill 3015 was passed during the 78th Texas Legislature— allowing public universities to vary tuition rates—tuition has risen at public universities 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.

At UH, total tuition rose from $2,266 per semester to $5,404 per semester from 2003-15, a 139 percent increase. Meanwhile, tuition at Texas A&M University and SHSU increased 108 percent and 156 percent, respectively.

However, the universities attribute such increases to a decrease in state funding per student, enrollment growth and an increase in costs. Fuller said the state’s funding per student declined by 43 percent from 1987-2012. To bridge the gap, colleges roll some of the cost into tuition.

“The No. 1 reason [for tuition increases]is the support of higher education is declining, and we’ve got to make that up somewhere or we’ve got to cut services,” Fuller said. “Since [students]don’t want us to cut services because they want certain degrees, we’ve got to make it up somewhere.”

As of press time, SB 19 and SB 543 were in committee, and SB 18 had been voted out of committee. If passed, these laws would go into effect Sept. 1.

Raymund Paredes, higher education commissioner for the THECB, said it would be difficult to assess how the bills could affect universities and students. He said attempts in other states, such as California and Montana, to freeze tuition costs have only resulted in temporarily offsetting costs.

“Sometimes, the tuition freezes essentially result in delaying increases for a couple of years, and then when the regulation expires, the institutions raise the tuition to exactly the same level that they would have if they had raised tuition incrementally,” Paredes said.

Senate targets tuition reform, proposes cutsCutting Costs

The first draft of the Senate’s proposed budget—which was approved by the Senate on March 28—would make more than $330 million in cuts to higher education in the next biennium. Groves said the cuts would not significantly affect community colleges but rather would come primarily from public universities.   

Many of the cuts could come from special items, or programs that are funded as line items by the state’s budget outside of the state appropriations formula, Groves said.

The state funded more than $1.1 billion of these special items across 37 public universities from 2016-17 in its last budget, according to data provided by the Center for Public Policy Priorities. That included more than $13.6 million in special items at TAMU’s campus in College Station over the biennium, nearly $33.2 million in special items at the UH Main Campus and nearly $25.3 million for SHSU’s Huntsville campus.

Carlos Hernandez, vice president for finance and operations at SHSU, said the cuts to special items could affect university activities, including museum operations, the small business development center and environmental testing as well as the criminal management and law enforcement management institutes of Texas.

Jason Smith, vice president for governmental relations for UH, said the Senate’s proposed budget would cut 7.8 percent of UH’s appropriations, which includes $22.5 million in cuts to the university and $35.6 million to the UH system. Most of the cuts would come from special items, which he said pay for a number of the university’s research initiatives.

Smith said if the state appropriations cuts are approved on top of SB 19, the university would have to make some tough decisions.

“For us to not have the option to make up some of that revenue through modest increases in tuition, even to keep up with annual cost increases in higher education, is concerning,” he said. “We’re sensitive to our students’ ability to handle any increase. But if all of these things happen together it’s going to be very difficult to provide the same quality of education.”

Groves said the Legislature increased higher education funding last session by roughly the same rate the Senate is proposing to cut it this session. UH, TAMU and SHSU saw state funding increase by 7.36 percent, 15.46 percent and 21.8 percent from the 2014-15 biennium to 2016-17, according to data from the universities.

However, despite the recent increase, Groves said the state’s contribution to higher education funding has steadily dropped over the years. The state appropriations per full-time equivalent student has fallen from an average of $7,767 in 2000 to $5,521 in 2015, according to CFPPP data.

At TAMU, state contributions have dropped from 55 to 38 percent from 2002-16, according to university officials. Meanwhile, the state’s contributions to the UH system decreased from 64 to 24 percent from 1994-2016.

Although the first draft of the House’s version of the budget has yet to be approved as of press time, Groves said it is likely higher education will not see much of a change from the previous biennium in the House’s budget. Smith said UH views the Senate version of the bill as a worst-case scenario, and the university is hopeful the Legislature will ultimately pass a budget closer to the House’s version.

“There are certainly some things that can be done to fill that gap,” he said. “It’s a matter of whether there is the political will to do it.”

Senate targets tuition reform, proposes cutsAffording Education

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.

Paredes 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.

Katy ISD Media Relations Manager Maria Corrales DiPetta said the district hosts a college fair each October with over 200 entities representing two- and four-year universities as well as some trade programs.

“There are usually 2000 [plus]attendees, not only from KISD but from other districts as well,” Corrales DiPetta said.

Each February, KISD also holds a Financial Information Academy with sessions and various speakers to discuss college financing with students.

The THECB is advocating the Legislature for a number of measures to help students pay for college, including increased paid internships, such as providing more work-study programs and implementing programs to award university credits for outside work.

“We can’t get to our goals doing business as usual,” Paredes said. “We’re gratified the Legislature seems to be interested in doing these kinds of things, and we hope that they’ll make a difference.”

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Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.
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