SG's tuition survey: All talk, no action

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On Jan. 30, 2011, Occupy UT, an organization known for eschewing traditional politics, staged an act of political theater by moving their weekly occupation from the steps of the Main Building to the Student Government Assembly to support a vote on a tuition referendum resolution. The idea was to use a referendum vote to get an official student opinion on soaring tuition costs and budget cuts from the state government that Student Government could use at the legislature.  The referendum was not well received by many Student Government Representatives, who were concerned about its non-binding nature; there was no way SG could enforce a tuition raise or increase, regardless of how the surveyed students voted.

Although the resolution required a referendum vote during the next round of campus-wide elections, it didn’t require SG to do anything with the results. To make it more useful, Student Government added a comprehensive survey in addition to the referendum. Although the survey was added in order to provide a more accurate picture of students’ opinions regarding tuition, its implementation has been flawed from the start, and it seems unlikely that it will ever be the useful tool it was intended to be.

The survey, which was first distributed last spring, was written by SG and the Senate of College Councils with help from Dr. Gale Stuart, director of the Rapid Analysis Team and former director of assessment for the Division of Student Affairs. Stuart, who acted as a survey research consultant, said that there were “serious hurdles” in the design and administration of the survey. First, the survey was administered between spring break and finals — one of the hardest periods of the year during which to engage students. Secondly, instead of acquiring a random sample of students, Student Government used a list of 9,183 unique, but not random, email addresses of potential survey-takers. “I’m neither confident nor un-confident in these results,” Stuart said.  Preliminary results were completed April 23, but by that time student officials were in transition and no one further analyzed the data.

But there may still be hope for this survey. Next semester, the state Legislature goes back into session, and having an official student opinion on tuition would be a helpful tool. Michael Morton, the current President of the Senate of College Councils and co-chair of Invest in Texas, a statewide student lobbying group, said that this survey will be helpful in the lobbying effort. Even though tuition has been frozen for two years, there is still the opportunity to petition the Legislature for more funding for universities and financial aid. Morton managed to receive the survey in the transition period between administrations and independently examined the results.

Student Government Officials were unable to initially comment on the tuition survey. When presented with the preliminary results, SG Vice President Wills Brown said that he and the rest of the executive board still need to sit down with Stuart to determine what needs to be done to complete the survey.

There have been questions in the past about the effectiveness of student participation in discussions about tuition and funding. This survey was the first attempt to get the student body’s perspective on a topic so essential to the student experience. As much as I would like to see this survey successfully and confidently completed, a look at the demographics of the survey are not promising. With nearly 20 percent more female respondents than male, almost as many business students as natural sciences students, and the lack of “Hispanic/Latino” as an option under the race category, this survey does not seem representative enough to use. The survey was unsuccessfully conducted but not un-intelligently conceived. It poses an important question. SG leaders should competently complete the survey, or start over and finish the job.

Nill is an ecology, evolution and behavior senior from San Antonio.