TPAC: Time we Pay Attention Carefully

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The Tuition Policy Advisory Committee will hold an open forum today to provide students with an overview of the budget and of the tuition-setting process.

Four students and five faculty and administrators comprise the committee, which was created in 2003 after the Texas Legislature deregulated tuition, allowing public universities rather than the state to set tuition rates. Tuition is set every two years. The committee makes recommendations to President William Powers Jr. on tuition policy after meeting regularly during the fall semester. Powers then presents his own recommendation to the Board of Regents, which ultimately sets tuition for the following biennium.

Despite its “advisory” role, the committee wields considerable power and influence over tuition policy at UT. After the committee recommended in 2009 that tuition be raised by 3.95 percent per year for the following two years, Powers agreed and forwarded the recommendations to the board, which finally increased tuition at UT-Austin by 3.95 percent. This year, a tuition-setting year, the committee will present recommendations on tuition policy that will affect the next two years.

Committee meetings are not open to the public, and the committee’s process is not at all transparent. The committee typically holds two open forums but only after releasing its initial recommendations. For the first time, however, the committee will hold an open forum before beginning its process, and it is imperative that students get involved in the discussion and the process from the beginning.

Last spring, the 82nd Legislature cut millions in higher education funding, resulting in a $92-million reduction of UT’s budget over the next biennium. Students need to provide the University with input as it prioritizes academics and other areas in the face of budget cuts. The College Tuition Budget Advisory Committees — created last year to gather student input at the college level on budget-related issues — will provide TPAC with their recommendations, which are largely based on student input. Whether TPAC will take them into consideration, however, is unclear.

Deans and other administrators will likely push to increase tuition to mitigate the cuts’ effects on academics at UT. For example, Gregory Fenves, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, suggested the school is pushing for a modest tuition increase as a last resort after the school’s budget was cut by 17 percent in all areas except faculty salary, according to The Daily Texan.

The Board of Regents, on the other hand, has expressed resistance to tuition increases. In fact, in a draft memorandum he wrote last spring, Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell listed system-wide tuition reduction as one of his goals.

Additionally, in his State of the University Address in September, Powers challenged the University to increase its four-year graduation rate from 51 percent to 70 percent in five years. In his framework for advancing excellence released in August, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also included a plan to create tuition incentives to encourage students to graduate within four years. An attempt to increase the four-year graduation rate may come with tuition incentives, and this will likely become part of the tuition-related discussions.

This is a critical time for UT, as administrators face pressure to reform higher education at the University without diminishing its quality. Because the committee has not yet decided whether it will hold another forum before releasing its initial recommendations, today’s forum may be students’ only opportunity to voice their budget- and tuition-related concerns to TPAC before it begins its process. The committee should hold more forums to garner and include student input in every step of its recommendation process.

The forum will begin at 4 p.m. today in the Avaya Auditorium, Room 2.302, of the ACES building.

— Viviana Aldous for the editorial board.