Perry calls for low-cost degrees, tuition freeze

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Higher education changes also proposed as solution to looming budget deficit

Gov. Rick Perry proposed a four-year tuition freeze on higher education and challenged institutions to develop a $10,000 bachelor’s degree in his State of the State speech Tuesday. Perry addressed a joint session of the Texas Legislature and released his version of the 2012-13 budget before the speech. He recommended the freeze and the cheaper degree as a way to make higher education more affordable. “As leaders search for more low-cost pathways to a degree, it’s time for a bold, Texas-style solution to this challenge that I’m sure the brightest minds in our universities can devise,” he said. “Let’s leverage web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal. Imagine the potential impact on affordability and graduation rates and the number of skilled workers it would send into our economy.” Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said having an online option to higher education would alleviate budget expenses for additional facilities and faculty. “I think he had some very sincere concerns about tuition,” she said. “I am 100 percent in favor of as much online activity as we can do. We cannot continue to build buildings. This is the new reality. Money is not there.” Former Texas House representative and UT public affairs lecturer Sherri Greenberg said higher education will face extensive cuts because it makes up 40 percent — or $2.4 billion of a budgeted $6.1 billion — of the state’s general revenue. In the his budget, Perry recommended cutting higher education by approximately $1.5 billion. “Higher education has already sustained cuts,” Greenberg said. “The leadership has said higher education will not be immune to the cuts [this session].” Perry said lawmakers should consider outcome-based funding, which would base undergraduate funding on the number of degrees awarded. “Change does not come easily or naturally to these big institutions, but it is crucial to educational effectiveness and efficiency,” Perry said. Perry also encouraged lawmakers to suspend “non-mission-critical entities,” such as the Historical Commission and the Commission on the Arts, until the economy improves. The Commission on the Arts released a study that showed the cultural sector in Austin contributes more than $2.2 billion to the economy annually and creates 44,000 permanent jobs. “The arts in general are losing support throughout, so many different cutbacks, so we’re needing more support of the private individuals,” said Edwin Rifkin, Blanton Museum of Art director. “This just emphasizes how much greater [art cutbacks] will be in the state of Texas.” Perry said the 5-percent state agency budget cuts in 2010 prepared the state to avoid facing a “budget Armageddon” and maintained his position that overcoming this budget will make state government more effective. He was firm in his stance against raising taxes and using the Rainy Day Fund — a $9.4 billion state emergency fund that can be used during budget shortfalls — and added there were no “sacred cows” in the budget. “Fortunately, we saw this coming, that’s why we didn’t touch the Rainy Day Fund last session,” he said. “Balancing our budget without raising taxes will keep us moving forward out of these though economic times, creating more jobs and opportunity and leaving Texas more competitive then ever.” Members from Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit Texas, a disability advocacy group, stood outside the House chamber in raincoats, asking lawmakers to use all of the Rainy Day Fund to ease the impact of budget cuts for those who use social services, such as the 100,000 people with disabilities on waitlists for home and community services. “There is a $27 billion deficit, and these are ways we think the governor and the Legislature can take into account rather than cutting much needed services,” said ADAPT Texas member Heiwa Salovitz. “If it’s not raining now, I don’t know what it’s doing.”