A contradictory message

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At a time when the words “budget cuts” are on everyone’s lips, the dreary conclusion seems to be that a tuition increase is necessary to maintain the quality of a UT education. The UT System Board of Regents recently gave UT’s Tuition Policy Advisory Committee two directives: to limit any request to increase tuition to 2.6 percent and to use any increased tuition revenue to improve four-year graduation rates.

The second condition seems to limit the first. The best way to improve four-year graduation rates is to not increase tuition at all.

A tuition increase that has as its primary purpose of improving four-year graduation rates is self-contradictory. Tuition increases play a large part in students’ not completing their degrees.

A recent study commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that the primary reason students at four-year universities do not finish their degrees is the stress of maintaining a balance between working a part-time job and going to school. Rising cost of tuition and fees came in second. Of course, the two are directly linked. Higher tuition bills mean an increased number of students need to work more to pay them.

According to a recent Texas law, 20 percent of any new tuition revenue needs to be directed toward financial aid programs. Superficially, this law may seem to counter the negative effects of rising tuition on those unable to pay, and it does to a certain extent. But the report also notes that 69 percent of students who do not complete their degrees receive little financial aid in any form and often have to support themselves. The additional tuition revenue, which would presumably go to students already receiving significant financial aid, would leave these students working more hours and studying less.

If the board’s message to TPAC seems contradictory, it is because it is contradictory. Low college-completion rates are directly related to the astronomical cost of attending college now. Raising tuition will only make the problem worse.

There are certainly students who take longer than four years to finish their degrees because they change their path, cannot get the courses they need or decide to pursue a double-major. But these students are not the problem. Changes to advising procedures, which the College of Liberal Arts College Tuition and Budget Advisory Committee recently urged in its report to the provost’s office, would do little to stem the true hemorrhage of economic waste: students who enter UT but drop out without finishing their degrees.

For these students, the problem is not that they are academically adrift; it is that they are financially drowning. And it is disturbing that the tuition advisory groups on campus, which are charged with representing the interests of students, have at best paid only lip service to the idea that tuition does not have to increase next year. If the plea falls on deaf ears, so be it. But resignedly accepting the inevitability of tuition increases by cryptically “recognizing that [they] may be unavoidable” semester after semester only gives political cover to the legislators who created this problem by refusing to fund education in this state at the levels our growing population demands.

Appeals to the saving power of technology and of purging lazy professors will only work for so long. Meanwhile, state funding continues to decline, tuition rates continue to rise and wages continue to stagnate. This has been happening for decades, but it has to stop.