Budget needs rethinking

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It’s an oft-heard complaint that UT-Austin, despite being a public institution, is receiving less and less state funding every day and is becoming unaffordable for the average student. State funding for the 2011-12 academic year dropped by 7.6 percent, according to a study conducted by Illinois State University’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. The state of Texas provided nearly half of all of UT’s funding in 1984, but since then that percentage has dropped to 13 percent. This has paralleled an equally dramatic rise in tuition.

Recently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended that the state Legislature reduce the maximum TEXAS Grant amount from $5,000 to $2,900 and limit the grants to only four years. The board’s argument is that reducing the amount awarded would allow more eligible students to receive funding.

According to Tom Melecki, director of Student Financial Services, the University opposes the board’s recommendation.  Dr. Melecki insists that the University should be able to set its own TEXAS Grant amount as long as it does not exceed $7,400, the amount set by state law for the 2012-13 academic year. On Oct. 25th, the recommendations were approved to go to the Legislature, although there was an exemption made for degree plans that take more than four years.

When I spoke to Dr. Melecki, he insisted that it was not his intent to “just single out the Coordinating Board” and that he understands both sides of the argument. He understands the need to provide aid to as many eligible students as possible but insists that  $2,900 would not be sufficient for the students who do receive the TEXAS Grant. He warns that without sufficient money for each recipient, many students would have to work more, increasing the possibility that they wouldn’t graduate in the four years necessary to continue receiving the funds.

It’s worth noting that tuition and fees make up only 38.6 percent of the cost of attending UT, while room and board and other expenses like transportation make up 57.8 percent, according to Melecki’s testimony to the Senate Higher Education Committee in September. Tuition at UT has stayed far below the national rate. According to the Office of Student Financial Services, it  rose 3.99 percent in 2011-2012, compared to 8.02 percent for the national average (the national data used by Melecki comes from a College Board study titled “Trends in College Pricing”).

However, Austin is an expensive place to live, and those costs offset that difference. In his testimony, Melecki also  compared the total cost of attendance at UT-Austin with that of an unnamed  commuter university. The total cost for UT was $25,394 a year, compared to $13,863 for the other school. The reason for the difference? Students did not pay any room and board at the commuter university, while in at UT, students paid about $10,946. Melecki admits that in the case of commuter colleges, “$2,900 for the TEXAS Grants might be enough,” but he questions its effectiveness for a university with a cost of living as high as ours.

Both the Higher Education Coordinating Board and UT have legitimate arguments.  In today’s budget crisis, you can’t simply allocate more money to higher education at the expense of other programs. Either provide fewer students with more money (as Melecki proposes) or provide more students with less money in an environment of increasing education costs.

But neither solution strikes at the source of the problem, which is that Texans are not willing to make sacrifices to deal with our state’s budget problems. According to a 2011 Texas Tribune survey, the vast majority of Texans opposes cuts to treasured programs such as assistance to nursing homes, public education, higher education, and border security. At the same time, most Texans oppose revenue-raising measures like surcharges on gas guzzling vehicles (80 percent against) and legalizing and taxing marijuana (61 percent against).

We cannot solve our budget problems with cuts alone. We cannot simply reduce the amounts given in scholarships and somehow do more with less. As Texans, we all must work to balance our budget, even if it means contributing a little bit more in taxes.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior.