Proposed bills aim to create tuition freeze for University

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On the Lege

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a six-part series examining bills that could impact the lives of students. If the Legislature passes either of two bills this session, the University will lose its ability to raise tuition in the face of rising costs and a shrinking budget. Two bills from the Texas House of Representatives, authored by Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, and James White, R-Hillister, would freeze tuition at whatever rate universities charge for the 2010-11 school year. Both of the bills will freeze tuition, but Isaac’s would freeze it for two years longer than White’s bill. UT’s current average rate of tuition for the 2010-11 school year is $4,778.25 for Texas residents taking 12 or more hours. These bills will prevent universities from taking in more money from students to make up for money lost from budget cuts, said Tim Head, White’s chief of staff. When legislators impose budget limitations on public institutions that are lower than what the institution may need, the institution often charges higher tuition, Head said. “The Legislature intends for the institution to limit its growth, but instead they just charge their students more money,” he said. White’s bill, if passed, would stop tuition hikes based on the 2010-2011 tuition rates for the next two academic years and would apply to all students enrolled in public universities, he said. “The idea is to keep them from passing higher tuition prices to students,” he said. “In Texas schools, tuition has skyrocketed over the last several years.” Isaac’s bill would freeze rates for the next four academic years until 2014-2015. The bill is intended to help ensure students will be able to pay for and stay in school in a time when grants are often being cut in the state’s estimated $27 billion budget deficit, Isaac said. “As the cost of higher education continues to rise, it is becoming more and more difficult for students to afford to attend college,” he said. “I was lucky enough to be able to finance my college education through a combination of working hard and receiving various forms of financial aid. Had I not received that help, it would have been much more difficult for me to graduate.” A well-educated workforce is crucial to the future success of the state, and the bill will help more people have the financial ability to attend college, Isaac said. “I know that it will place a lot of pressure on universities to maintain their quality of education without depending on money from increased tuition, but it’s the same pressure that families and businesses across Texas are currently feeling,” he said. A bill like Isaac’s could cost the University $230 million in potential revenue, assuming UT would have raised tuition 3.95 percent every year the bill applies to, said Mary Knight, associate vice president of UT’s budget office. The bill would compound the budget reductions which are already estimated to be between $80 million and $100 million for the 2012-2013 biennium, she said. “Although the University is making plans for needed budget reductions and affordability continues to be a top priority, it is important to be able to have some flexibility with tuition and other potential revenue sources,” she said. The College Republicans opted not to endorse White’s bill because of the difficult position it would put the University in, group vice president Justin May said. Since the bill would prevent universities from raising tuition to take in more money, it would also require them to cut more academic programs and would negatively affect long-term projects such as construction, he said. “The frustrating thing is that if the state is going to cap tuition, they should either account for inflation in their plan or they should be able to provide funding for higher education,” he said. If the state government can’t make up for the loss created by budget cuts, then students lose some of the quality of the education at public institutions of higher education, he said. White’s bill wouldn’t provide that kind of supplementation, he said. “Constitutionally, our state does have a commitment to higher education,” May said. “If we’re going to regulate universities, we can’t just do it halfway. We need to make sure that Texas students get the best education so that they can be competitive, not just in the state but nationally and internationally.” Undeclared freshman Marisol Canales said she thinks the school has the money to get by without raising tuition or cutting courses because of the high amount of construction on campus. 6 “They’re giving us, the students, these choices between raising tuition or cutting courses, which they’re not even asking us about,” she said. “[The administration] is adding more buildings instead of focusing on what really matters, which is the education that we’re here for.”