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Senate Republican Leaders Express Concern Over Tuition Hikes

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger told Texas university presidents Friday that it is “discouraging” that many of them are choosing to raise tuition this year, even after the Legislature increased higher education funding in 2015.

In a letter the two Republican leaders released Friday, Patrick and Seliger also asked for detailed information about the history of tuition at the public universities, saying they planned to study the issue before the Legislature reconvenes in 2017.

“The cost of higher education must remain at a level that is within reach of all Texans,” they said in a letter.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discusses school choice and education public policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Orientation event on Jan. 7, 2016. | Photo by Shelby Knowles/ Texas Tribune
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discusses school choice and education public policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Orientation event on Jan. 7, 2016. | Photo by Shelby Knowles/ Texas Tribune

In the past six months, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System, among others, have decided to raise tuition at their member universities. At UT-Austin, costs will rise by just over $300 per semester by 2017. At A&M, costs will go up by over $200 per semester by 2017.

Officials at both universities said they needed to keep up with the cost of inflation, and noted that students at Texas’ top universities will still pay less than students at most comparable schools elsewhere in the country.

The Texas Legislature controlled tuition costs until 2003, when that authority was ceded to the universities’ governing boards. Patrick has asked the Senate to study the effects of that deregulation and consider finding ways to reduce that costs.

Universities are stringently opposed to the Legislature taking back control. They acknowledge that costs have gone up since 2003. But, they argue, they went up faster for most schools in the decade before the Legislature gave up control.

Seliger and Patrick are asking to see the facts on issue for themselves. They have asked schools to provide their tuition rates since the 2002-03 school year, along with how annual mandatory fees have changed since then. They have also asked to see an overview of each university’s plans to reduce student debt and lower costs.

“Texans expect their elected representatives to protect their interests and to be stewards of public resources, including public universities,” Seliger and Patrick wrote.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

Analysis: Raising College Tuition, Deflecting the Blame

When it comes to self-preservation, politicians are pretty damn smart.

It’s a new year and state colleges — the University of Texas System tops the listright now — are talking about raising tuition for next year’s class of students. No particular officeholder will get the blame if that happens, and yet, you can find lawmakers who want the responsibility for prices back in their hands.

A little more than a decade ago, Texas lawmakers had what looked like two choices: Either they could raise tuition at the state’s public universities, or they could increase the amount of money budgeted for those schools in the state’s appropriations bill.

Make it three choices: They could have starved the schools, but they didn’t want to do that.

Option one would open lawmakers to attacks of raising prices on an increasingly fundamental requirement for entry into a financially independent adulthood. Yes, there are exceptions, but a college education greatly increases the odds of success. Nobody in politics wants to deny that to their citizens, whether by restricting admissions or raising prices.

Option two would have required large increases in state spending, another way to get whacked in a state ruled, indirectly, by conservative Republican voters. Brian McCall, a former state representative who is now the chancellor of the Texas State University System, said last year, “The money’s got to come from somewhere. From students or from the state. That’s it.”

So here’s the genius of self-preservation at work: In 2003, legislators held state spending on colleges and universities more or less where it had been, and gave up their power to set tuition altogether, handing that power to the appointed boards of regents at the schools themselves.

Tuition went up, because the schools needed money and the Legislature would not give them more, through the budget. The state held the line. Students paid the price.

Voters would love to blame someone — you can tell by listening to them at town halls and by seeing what the current crop of candidates has to say about tuition.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who grumbled via news release when the University of Texas System started talking about new tuition hikes in October, has senators looking at the issue between now and the 2017 legislative session. Some of them want to set rates themselves rather than trust that to the schools.

House Speaker Joe Straus has his colleagues working, too, broadly asking them to study the affordability and accessibility of college in the state.

Those studies might bring new ideas to the debate or revive older ones, like a persistent proposal to put pricing back in the hands of legislative budget-writers.

Perhaps that will happen, but lawmakers would forfeit a political benefit and maybe some restraint over tuition rates, too.

Politicians have escaped direct blame for the increases — that’s one less thing they have to worry about as they seek re-election. Regents, appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate, aren’t on the ballot. Voters, following the lead of their elected officials, blamed the schools. Helluva deal, isn’t it?

Along with that political advantage comes a practical one: The regents have been more tight-fisted than legislators themselves.

The Legislature “deregulated” tuition in 2003, using the political language generally reserved for times when they unleash a private industry or activity that has been straining under the yoke of government. That vintage rhetoric was intentional; lawmakers said they were freeing the state’s colleges and universities to set their own tuition rates rather than dictating them from Austin.

Tuition was expected to rise rapidly. It did — but it might have been worse had legislators been at the wheel. Only nine of the state’s 38 four-year colleges and universities raised prices faster in the decade after deregulation than in the decade that preceded it, according to a 2015 Texas Tribune analysis, and average prices at many of those nine remain below the state’s average.

A political argument on the other side: The Texas Legislature had a Democratic majority before that 2003 legislative session and has had a Republican one ever since. Republicans might argue that they’ve never had a real chance to prove themselves as stewards of tuition rates..

Voters might like the idea, whether they are Republicans, Democrats or none-of-the-aboves: They’d be in position to see who was for and who was against  higher prices for higher education.

After all, isn’t it a little bit strange to let elected officials get away with yelling and carping about the government that they themselves belong to? It is supposed to be to their credit when the government is operating well, and their fault if the government is messed up. It’s hard to hold them responsible if they aren’t in control.

Disclosure: The Texas State University System was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune from 2012 to 2014. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues

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