Tuition and fees at UT have nearly doubled in the last decade while the need for higher education is beginning to lose support among Texas voters.
According to the Office of Student Financial Services, the total cost of attending the University increased by $4,242 from 2008 to 2014. The total cost includes annual tuition and cost of living. As the cost of attendance has increased, so has the national student loan debt, which the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau reports is over $1 trillion.
Meanwhile, a recent UT/Texas Tribune poll showed 28 percent of Texas voters think a college education is necessary. This is down from 42 percent in 2010, according to the Tribune.
Wanda Mercer, UT System associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, said tuition increases at most System institutions go toward hiring more faculty members and funding student support programs. Mercer said increases also allow for salary increases and accommodate for inflation.
At the University, tuition payments also include mandatory fees, which pay for services available to all students. Despite the lack of tuition revenue bonds — which are used to fund construction projects — in recent legislative sessions, Mercer said tuition increases do not usually go toward building costs.
Citing recent board decisions, Mercer said the regents have been resistant toward tuition increases.
“Our regents have been very, very careful about even allowing increases to be requested, and they’ve been even more careful in approving them,” Mercer said.
In 2012 and 2014, the Board of Regents decided not to increase undergraduate in-state tuition at the University. Both times, the regents did increase out-of-state undergraduate tuition by 2.1 percent and 2.6 percent, respectively.
Up until those recent decisions, the regents had approved significantly higher increases over the past ten years. Supported by then-Chancellor Mark Yudof, the Texas Legislature passed a bill deregulating tuition in 2003. The bill effectively moved tuition decisions for the University from the legislature to the regents. Since deregulation, in-state tuition and fees have increased 80 percent at the University from $2,721 to $4,895, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Mercer said the increases were primarily to accommodate for reduced state funding.
“The legislature pulled back on its appropriations and said to the institutions, ‘it will be market-driven,’” Mercer said. “I don’t think they had any notion that campuses would then say ‘well, if you’re not going to provide the appropriated money, we will go to the students.’”
According to Mercer, System institutions would not operate as effectively as they do now if tuition was lowered to pre-deregulation levels.
“We would not be able to offer the classes in a timely manner that you need for graduation,” Mercer said. “They would have to cut the offerings by a significant amount. They would have to cut services. I’m just not sure it would move students toward graduation in most circumstances.”
Mercer said a System task force formed to find ways of reducing debt recommended incentivizing students to graduate on time in 2012. Jamie Brown, Office of Student Financial Services spokeswoman, said her office encourages graduating in four years to reduce the amount students borrow.
“One of the factors we’re pushing is that students need to graduate in four years,” Brown said. “For the Office of Student Financial Services in particular, it’s so that they don’t have to borrow as much.”
With UT below the national average in terms of students who graduate with debt and the average amount of loan debt in 2012, Brown said she thinks the University’s overall push to increase four-year graduation rates to 70 percent by 2016 is benefitting students financially.
Student Government president Kori Rady was one of seven student leaders on a committee developing the University’s tuition increase proposal to the regents over the past school year. The final proposal, approved by President William Powers, Jr., called for a 2.13 percent increase for in-state tuition and a 2.6 percent for out-of-state.
Rady said even if all proposed increases had been approved by the regents, the University would have still had a competitive tuition compared to peer institutions.
“I really do believe UT is one of the highest-valued colleges in the nation,” Rady said. “We’re definitely very competitive in terms of affordable colleges.”
Mukund Rathi, a computer science junior who has been vocal against tuition increases, said comparing the University’s tuition rates to peer institutions’ should not factor into increase proposals.
“It’s pretty much irrelevant where other universities are right now,” Rathi said. “We should be doing what makes sense, regardless of how bad other universities are doing.”