Four-year grads don't come cheap

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On Oct. 1, Gov. Rick Perry gave a speech in Dallas outlining his plan to fight the skyrocketing cost of higher education in Texas. His proposals, which are intended to “meet the growing demand for higher education in a way that provides encouragement for students to complete their degree in a timely fashion and with financial certainty,” include a four-year tuition freeze, outcomes-based funding and increased fiscal transparency for students.

Providing incentives for four-year graduation is central to Perry’s plan. In his Oct. 1 address, Perry advocated tying 10 percent of a university’s state funding to the number of students the school graduates. The Governor cites Texas’ state universities’ abysmal four-year graduation rates as a drain on students’ and universities’ economic resources.

UT-Austin’s administration supports the four-year graduation push in Perry’s plan. “UT Austin graduates more students — and more students on time — than any other public university in Texas.  So if state funding is tied to graduation rates, the University will do well,” said UT spokesman Gary Susswein. “Shifting the incentive towards degrees is something we would welcome.”

Perry's efforts are admirable, and it's good that those in power are looking to lend cash-strapped students a hand.

However, another one of the Governor’s other initiatives seems to counter his goals for affordable higher education. Perry has mandated that state agencies cut costs by 10 percent and has stated his refusal to sign any budget that increases state spending. If recent history is any indication, one of the first places the Capitol will look to cut costs is higher education. Last year alone, the Texas Legislature slashed $1 billion dollars from state universities and over $90 million from UT.

In 2003, Texas legislators, seeking to balance the state budget without raising taxes, removed the statewide cap on tuition and started allowing public universities to set their own prices. Since then, according to a recent analysis by The Dallas Morning News, the average cost for a student at a Texas state school has increased by 55 percent.

There is an inverse relationship between the amount of funding a university receives from the state and the cost of itstuition. By refusing to allocate adequate funds to public universities, the state government forces UT and other schools to make up the difference through tuition increases.

In 1985, 47 percent of UT’s budget came from state appropriations, and only 5 percent — a drop in the bucket — came from tuition. Today, state funding accounts for only 13 percent, while students are asked to contribute one-fourth of the University’s budget. This growing burden on the students Perry is unwilling to recognize.

In his State of the University address on Sept. 27, UT President William Powers Jr. lauded parts of Perry’s plan but also stressed, “Predictability and planning are also important for our campus, so the state should also show its own commitment by providing predictable revenue streams ... Predictability aids planning, and planning promotes efficiency,” Powers said.

UT Arlington President James Spaniolo concurs. “It’s hard to make these judgments about leveling tuition for a four-year period without knowing anything about what funding is going to be coming from the state,” he said.

Overall, Perry’s proposed tuition freeze represents a step in the right direction, but it fails to strike at the heart of the problem. Perry and the Legislature say they want to make higher education more accessible for Texas families. If so, they need to adequately fund state universities. As state leaders, they must hold up their end of the bargain and support Texas higher education.