Changing the tune of TPAC

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As the climate cools, members of the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee put on their sweaters and prepare for the tuition-setting season, caroling hopeful tunes of representation and self-determination.

TPAC is charged with presenting tuition policy recommendations to President William Powers Jr. Next spring, Powers will consult the committee’s recommendations and form his own recommendation for the UT System Board of Regents, which ultimately sets tuition at each of the UT System institutions.

The role of the committee — which comprises nine voting members, including four students — is to develop recommendations that take into consideration both the University’s long-term needs and students’ short-term ones.

The University has a number of goals — including becoming the top public university in the country and providing its students with a strong foundation to prepare them for their futures — that cannot be met without substantial financial resources. 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, faculty and staff have already begun to feel the impact of budget cuts through larger classes, fewer course options and consolidation of language programs, among other negative effects.

Given the financial situation the University faces, there is a high probability that tuition will be increased. As a result, TPAC is left primarily with the task of determining what a tuition increase at UT would look like and how it would
affect students.

However, this year, the regents gave the committee two directives: to tie any requests for tuition increases to the effort to improve four-year graduation rates and to keep requests for tuition increases under about 2.6 percent.

These directives not only provide an outline for tuition increases but also determine the reasoning behind an increase, should TPAC decide to request one.

But with its increase cap, the board substantially alters TPAC’s role, and the committee is now limited in the possibilities it can consider. Ideally, TPAC begins its process with a thorough examination of UT’s budget realities along with its short and long-term goals. From this, TPAC should determine how tuition can bridge the gap between the University’s current situation and where it hopes to be.

However, these directives reverse the process. Rather than the process determining tuition policy, a potential tuition increase determines the process.

Moreover, by limiting TPAC before the tuition-discussion process even began, the regents have significantly increased the likelihood that the committee’s recommendations will merely reflect the board’s goals.

If TPAC adheres to the guidelines, it risks regurgitation of the board’s goals, and its recommendations will only be rubber-stamped by the board, eliminating the need for the committee altogether. However, if TPAC rebels, it risks losing its voice in the tuition-setting process, thereby making its efforts unproductive.

The directives undermine the recommendation process and the purpose of TPAC, giving students and faculty the false impression that they can influence tuition policy. Moving forward given the current context, TPAC will need to redefine its purpose and make the most of its role, changing its tune so it isn’t left out in the cold.