What a tuition freeze could mean in Texas

As the end of the school year approaches, many parents and seniors are trying to figure out how to pay for college in Texas, where tuition at public universities is rising an average of 6 percent per year, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, a state coordinating agency for higher education institutions.

In an attempt to address the rapid rise in tuition, dozens of bills have been filed this session in the Texas Senate and House of Representatives relating to tuition rules and regulations, including Senate Bills 18 and 19, which were named priorities by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“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.”

Although proponents of the legislation—including some Houston-area legislators—support the help the bills could provide postsecondary students, local colleges 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 Sam Houston State University.

Since state tuition was deregulated in 2003, total university tuition has risen sharply at public four-year schools. Since state tuition was deregulated in 2003, total university tuition has risen sharply at public four-year schools.[/caption]

Legislative solutions
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.

Another bill, SB 543, also filed by Seliger, would require state schools to meet performance-based metrics—such as graduation rates, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded and average length of student enrollment—before being allowed to raise tuition.

“Tuition relief and predictability is necessary for Texas students and families,” Seliger said. “SB 19 provides much-needed stability for those planning to attend or attending college. Together with SB 543, we will have the opportunity to implement a long-term tuition reform solution, which holds institutions accountable and ensures they remain accessible and affordable.”

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 would immediately 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, with a return to deregulated prices immediately after the freeze.

“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 from one year,”
Paredes said.

This session 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,” he said. “We’re going to substantially have to reinvent higher education. We’re gratified the Legislature seems to be interested in doing these kinds of things, and we hope that they’ll make a difference.”

Based on historical data from 2011-15, a four-year tuition freeze at Sam Houston State University over that time period would have saved students thousands of dollars. Based on historical data from 2011-15, a four-year tuition freeze at Sam Houston State University over that time period would have saved students thousands of dollars.[/caption]

Tuition on the rise
Although tuition has increased in recent years, the price of attending a higher education institution was not always decided at the university level.

In 2003, the 78th Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3015, which granted public universities the ability to charge varying tuition rates with no cap on the designated tuition per academic period. Prior to HB 3015, the Legislature had the authority to mandate the same rate be charged across the state for public higher education institutions, according to the THECB.

Since tuition was deregulated, tuition has risen at public universities by as much as 178 percent—or an average of 70 percent after adjusting for inflation—from 2003-15, with students paying a statewide average of $1,687 more per semester, according to the THECB.

At the University of Houston, 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.

“We have to increase our budget in order to recruit and retain our exceptional faculty, expand [program offerings] and services, and cover fixed cost increases and other cost increases that are driven by enrollment growth,” said Julia May, associate director of communications and public information officer at SHSU. “These increases are necessary to meet the demands that our students expect from an education that’s going to prepare them for the workforce.”

Fuller said comparing costs before and after deregulation does not take into account yearly costs to maintain buildings, adding campus services and programs to meet enrollment growth and demand, and an increased number of institutions fighting for the same amount of state funding. Other factors, such as investments in campus amenities to attract more students, also play a role in tuition increases.

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.

In 2015 the Legislature allocated $15.1 billion, or 7.2 percent of the total budget, for higher education instruction, financial aid and research. The House introduced an initial budget this session that would allocate $15.6 billion, or 7.1 percent of the House’s total proposed budget. The Senate has also proposed 7.1 percent, or $15.08 billion, of its proposed budget for higher education.

At Texas A&M, the percentage of the university system’s operating costs composed of state contributions has dropped from 55 percent to 38 percent from 2002-16, according to university officials. At UH, the state’s contributions to the college system decreased from 64 percent to 24 percent from 1994-2016, and SHSU’s main Huntsville campus received 38 percent of operating costs from the state in 2016.

“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.”

Who pays for college? Who pays for college?[/caption]

Affording education
Although Texas ranks seventh nationwide in higher education affordability, students enrolling in a public four-year university in Texas typically need to borrow more than $4,400 annually to pay for expenses, 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.

However, universities such as UH, are limiting rising costs for students by implementing programs to freeze tuition for students who meet certain requirements, said Shawn Lindsey, director of media relations and digital programming.

In 2014, UH implemented UH in 4, a fixed-tuition initiative program for freshmen and transfers. Students are required to complete 30 credit hours per year and remain in good academic standing to receive a fixed tuition rate for four consecutive years. Texas A&M also offers a similar program freezing tuition for four years for incoming freshmen.

“The development of these programs and the fixed-tuition model is largely in response to rising tuition rates statewide fueled by long-term decreasing support from state revenues,” Lindsey said.

Magnolia ISD Communications Director Denise Meyers said district officials are working to help students prepare for the financial aspect of attending a four-year school.

“We know [going to college] can be very expensive,” Meyers said.
Meyers said career counselors at each of the district’s high schools work with students and parents throughout the year to help match students with recruiters and financial aid, in addition to hosting workshops in conjunction with the Lone Star College System’s  Financial Aid Office to help students understand the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“[Our college career advisers] also really do a great job of promoting scholarships,” she said. “Last year there was about $11 million that our high school seniors received, and that’s a really big number for our district.”

Additional reporting by Emily Donaldson
By 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.