The partial budget picture

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In March, the UT System Board of Regents will likely raise tuition for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 academic years, per President William Powers Jr.’s recommendation.

In December, Powers forwarded to the board the proposal of the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee to raise tuition by 2.6 percent for resident undergraduates and by 3.6 percent for nonresident undergraduates and all graduate students.

Students have heard the threat multiple times: If we don’t raise tuition, we may see significant cuts to University services and programs. This is the picture University administrators paint for students when discussing tuition policy.

Students are shut out from budget discussions and tuition policy meetings and, consequently, have a very limited understanding of the budget. As a result, students can engage in only a limited and often unproductive discussion of the large and complex issue.

At TPAC open forums, during which students can voice their opinions on possible tuition increases, many students describe the sacrifices they make to afford tuition. While these arguments are incredibly compelling, they don’t really fit in the tuition discussion as it has been framed. Without increasing tuition, the framework demands that the University has to cut important programs, thus reducing the quality of education UT offers, and if UT’s quality decreases, both prospective and current students may turn elsewhere.

Reinforcing this mindset, students’ representative body, Student Government, is attempting to allow for more student input with a referendum on two questions: first, whether they support a tuition increase and second, whether they accept cuts to services and programs.

This is unproductive. First, the questions will be incorporated into the student-wide elections, which will be Feb. 29 and March 1. The Board of Regents must set tuition policy by March 15 and has already received a recommendation from Powers. Given this timeline, it is extremely unlikely that the results of this referendum will have any effect on the policy the regents set.

Second, and more importantly, the two questions perpetuate the partial perception of the larger financial problem as it has been conveyed to students. The two questions present the University’s budget shortfall as something that can be solved by either increasing tuition or by reducing funding for critical programs.

With only a limited understanding of the budget, students can rarely contribute meaningfully to the discussion with alternatives to tuition increases or budget cuts. The partial picture that students are allowed to see and the limited perspective it ensures make student input unproductive. Additionally, by presenting only these tired, dichotomous solutions, those involved in the tuition-setting process exclude every other possibility that might help to fill the budgetary hole that the Legislature left UT with last session.

If students want to be included in the tuition-setting process, they should demand more transparency and information from administrators. Otherwise, their input risks being extraneous at best and counterproductive at worst.