Senate Committee on Higher Education

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Senate Committee on Higher Education heard bills Wednesday to limit tuition increases in higher ed.

In 2003, legislators deregulated tuition, granting universities control of tuition rates. Since the tuition deregulation, in-state tuition at UT has increased from $2,721 to $4,905 per semester, but for the past four years, tuition rates have been relatively constant.

“We now allow boards of regents to raise tuition on their own, and [they are] shifting funds away from states and to families,“ Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) said. 

The committee heard two bills — one by Ellis and another by Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown). While both bills have slightly different implementation measures, their goals are essentially the same: to regulate tuition at the state level again.

Unlike Ellis’ bill, Schwertner’s addresses capping student fees as well as tuition. His bill also only applies to public four-year institutions.

Ellis, author of SB 255, said he thinks the deregulation of tuition has placed a financial burden on Texas students and their families.

“That makes it hard for students to attend the schools that were built to serve them,” Ellis said. “It pushes families to a point where they incur debt.”

The availability of loans to finance student tuition limits universities’ interests in decreasing tuition, according to Schwertner, author of SB 233.

“Because of readily available access to student loans, universities never truly have an incentive to control costs or lower tuition,” Schwertner said. “Universities know that the financing will always be there.”

Plan II and biochemistry senior Andrew Gulde testified at the hearing in support of Ellis’ bill. He said the only way for students to have a say in UT’s tuition decisions is through the nonvoting student regent.

“I support SB 255 because it’s the only bill that allows families like mine and me to hold legislators accountable for tuition decisions,” Gulde said. “I believe the Legislature — not an elected board — is the proper place for these decisions to be made.”

University library assistant Kathryn Kenefick testified on both bills. Kenefick said she supports the strong push in the Texas Legislature for tuition.

“I hear tales from students as they are getting ready to complete school and looking for jobs and have the terrible burden of student debt that has come from the institutional costs,” Kenefick said.

When Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked Schwertner if he thought the bill would pass through the full Senate, Schwertner chuckled and said, “There’s always hope, Senator.“

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

The Senate Committee on Higher Education left a bill regarding board of regent operations pending in committee to adjust the language of the bill.

SB 177, which Sen. Kel Seliger (R–Amarillo) filed, would establish certain restrictions and operation guidelines for the governing boards of public institutions of higher education, such as the UT System Board of Regents. If passed, the bill would establish new transparency and independence measures, ethics training and a clear definition of the board’s role in the university’s system.

Over the course of the last several years, UT administrators and the UT System Board of Regents have been involved in several highly-publicized debates concerning transparency. 

Last year, the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations formally censured Regent Wallace Hall after he allegedly placed a burden on the University with a series of broad open records requests, spanning several hundreds of thousands of pages. 

The bill establishes that the board may not “unreasonably or unduly” interfere with daily university operations.

“My concern would be that in the event a board of trustees felt the need to have a little more interactive role in a day to day capacity, for whatever reason … I’m afraid this may put some handcuffs — if you will — on unforeseen circumstance,” Rep. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) said.

At the hearing, Seliger said the bill would “establish consistency” in governing body processes across the state.

“This bill clarifies and codifies the best practice of university governance,” Seliger said at the hearing. “It also increases transparency and training for members of boards of regents.” 

Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) said she is concerned about the standardization of governing boards. 

“I like the individual ability of each board to, kind of, oversee as they see fit,” Burton said.

The bill also establishes that a system may terminate employment of a president only after receiving permission from the university system chancellors.

Seliger filed a similar bill last legislative session, and it passed, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

In a public hearing Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Committee on Higher Education referred for consideration to the Senate a bill that would require further training of university system regents. 

The bill’s author Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said the bill would make ethics training mandatory and address limitations of the authority of the governing board. 

“The intensive short course will be required before a governing board member can vote on budgetary and personnel matters,” Zaffirini said.

The bill would also create a process by which the coordinating board can receive anonymous complaints and allegations of mismanagement or abuse of power. 

The committee also referred to the full Senate another bill authored by Zaffirini that would deny community college students eligibility for the B-on-Time program, which offers zero-interest loans to students who, having maintained a certain grade point average, graduate in four years. 

“Currently, community college students rarely use the program because they often do not meet the full-time student and timely graduation requirements,” Zaffirini said. 

Leslie Helmcamp, policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said student counseling could improve the B-on-Time program.

“We support the continuation of the program and making it specific to students at four-year institutions, because it does better support that population,” Helmcamp said. “One thing we wanted to see, however, was a loan counseling program of some sort. Many students don’t understand how the program works and accordingly can’t take advantage of it.”

A surprise reshuffling of Senate committee chairmanships earlier this month left state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, as the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, a position he says he will go into with a fresh perspective.

Seliger said despite his legislative experience in higher education being limited to his service on a higher education oversight committee in 2011, the topic is of clear interest to him.

“I don’t know what to expect. This is my first standing committee chair position, and I’m just looking forward to it,” Seliger said. “Higher education is an interesting and important topic and I have already started discussions with people in higher education institutions and the experience has been very absorbent.”

Seliger said one of the issues he will bring up for discussion during the 2013 legislative session, which will begin in January, is the effectiveness of the Top 10 Percent Rule.

“We are going to discuss the [Top 10 program] — what it does and what it does not do,” Seliger said. “The law is there to increase minority enrollment, which I think is a very good idea. I don’t think it really works to do that. If so, then we should do away with it.”

The Top 10 program guarantees admission to public universities in Texas based on high school class rank.

Seliger has been in the Texas Senate for eight years, during which time he has served on various Senate committees, including one on public education.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said he believes Seliger will be a quick study in his new position.

“He’s already reached out to me to talk about higher education issues,” Branch said. “We told him we would have an open door and pass him as much information about policy issues and the things we have been working on.”

Branch said he will work closely with Seliger to maintain the level of Tier One universities in the state and ease the transfer process from community colleges to four-year institutions. Tier One status identifies schools with significant research programs but has no concrete definition.

Although bills for the upcoming legislative session have not officially been filed yet, Seliger said he expects higher education funding to be another widely discussed issue in the Senate.

“We are really going to have to address funding,” Seliger said. “Higher education is important, and it’s expensive.”

He said he hopes institutions can develop satisfactory performance metrics that will allow the state to move away from enrollment-based financing and toward an approach that considers student outcomes.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is the previous chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, where she served since its formation in 2009. She said she has had extensive talks with Seliger to discuss the current issues in higher education, a fact Seliger said is a sign of a good working relationship.

“I was on her committee for higher education oversight and we worked together on legislation on other areas before so this will just sort of fit seamlessly with the work we have done together in the past,” Seliger said.

New Senate Committee on Higher Education chair appointed

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst announced senate committee appointments for the upcoming legislative session Thursday morning, reassigning former higher education chair Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.


Zaffirini, former chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education was replaced by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo. Zaffirini was reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Government Organization after serving as chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education since 2009. Previously, she chaired the Higher Education Subcommittee since 2005 before the committee was upgraded to a regular committee.


Seliger was appointed to the higher education committee because of his strong interest in improving public education for children, instituting innovative change and providing more school choice for parents, according to a statement released by Dewhurst.


Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, was appointed as chair of the Senate Committee on Education, replacing Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who announced her retirement last year.


“This upcoming Session will be difficult,” Dewhurst said in the statement. “As a lifelong businessman, I have constantly tried to challenge my colleagues and myself through new leadership opportunities and rotating assignments that require fresh conservative thinking and conservative solutions. Therefore, I am pleased to announce the following Chairs for the remainder of the Interim until the Regular Session to complete the Interim Charges.”


From Dewhurst’s statement:


Senator Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education to maximize the benefits of his interest in education and workforce development and his ability to work with all Members. He recently served as Chair of the Senate Committee on Redistricting.


Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), whose leadership of the Senate Committee on Higher Education has benefited Texas students, is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Government Organization, where important Sunset legislation – including bills relating to the Higher Education Coordinating Board – will be considered this Session.


Senator Dan Patrick (R-Houston) has been appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Education, due to his strong interest in improving public education for children, instituting innovative change and providing for more school choice by parents. 


Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), who has ably served as Chair of the Senate Committee on Government Organization, is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Open Government to work on rewriting appropriate sections of the Open Government laws and increase transparency in state government operations in this age of modern communications.


Senator Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation, succeeding Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) who was recently appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance. 


Senator Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, with the important responsibility of Homeland Security transferred to his Committee.


Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, which deals with local government issues.


Senator Glenn Hegar (R-Katy) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Nominations, which handles the important job of considering Gubernatorial appointments.


Senator Royce West (D-Dallas), who served as Chair of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence where his strong legal background will benefit the Senate as well as the Judiciary.


Senator Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) is appointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Development to help grow the Texas economy and create new jobs.


Senator Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands) will serve as Chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, succeeding Senator Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) who announced his retirement following the 82nd Legislature.


Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) has been reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services to help the Senate address federal healthcare and Obamacare challenges.


Senator Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) has been reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs.


Senator John Carona (R-Dallas) is reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce after previously serving as Chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.


Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) is reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources after previously serving as Chair of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce.


Senator Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) is reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Administration.


Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) is reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.


Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) is reappointed as Chair of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations.

As part of the University’s efforts to decrease the burden of college loans on students, a UT administrator presented a pilot program intended to generate faster loan forgiveness and increase four-year graduation rates to state senators.

Thomas Melecki, director of the Office of Student Financial Services, said the University has developed a pilot program that could help students repay student loans if they meet certain course credit completion standards. During a Senate Committee on Higher Education hearing Wednesday where legislators heard recommendations related to the upcoming legislative session, Melecki presented the new program and recommended the state establish financial aid program budgets years in advance.

“The program provides real positives for students in completing all their hours and getting themselves to graduation in four years,” Melecki said. “It allows students to borrow less and forgive or pay down loans while still in school.”

The program would select 200 incoming freshmen that have been awarded Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans on the basis of financial need. Melecki said unsubsidized loans, with a 6.8 percent interest rate, are the most expensive type of loans students can take out.

Half of the group will be offered $1,000 in forgiveness toward the principal of the unsubsidized loan and additional forgiveness of accrued interest each semester if they complete 15 course credit hours that apply to degree requirements.

The other half of the group will be offered $2,000 in forgiveness and additional forgiveness for all interest accrued at the end of the academic year if they complete 30 course credit hours toward their degree.

Melecki said he estimates students who qualify for forgiveness for eight semesters will pay $13,000 less over the standard 10-year repayment period.

The program will begin next fall, and the University will provide results to the state legislature in two years, Melecki said. He said the program will provide data to measure whether it is possible to incentivize undergraduates to graduate in four years.

Melecki was not the only one who focused on the idea of incentivizing student performance through financial aid.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), committee chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, said financial aid programs need to motivate students with incentives to take more courses because they are not being advised to take more than 12 hours a semester.

“The easiest way to save money is to graduate faster,” Zaffirini said. “We need to get creative as to how we acknowledge these issues.”

Dan Weaver, assisting commissioner of education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said students are taking too long to earn degrees and take more credits than are necessary to graduate.

“The essence [of our recommendations] is to encourage students to graduate on time,” he said. “We recommend capturing this essence as a tuition rebate instead of by providing loans that are ultimately forgiven.”

In a written testimony submitted to the committee, Melecki also recommended state appropriations from the legislature be approved two years in advance.

“Putting state financial aid appropriations on such a cycle would make it possible for institutions to receive their allocations every year in plenty of time to award state funds before May 1,” he wrote in the proposal.

In 2011, the Office of Student Financial Services delayed financial aid award notifications for students because of delays in the federal and state budget processes.

The University provided prospective freshmen with financial aid packages that did not include state financial aid but did not send these notifications until past the May 1 enrollment deposit deadline for freshmen to ensure their spot at UT.

Melecki said notifications included, on average, $7,000 less in TEXAS grants and Top 10 Percent Scholarships per student, an amount that was replaced by loans.

“Some of the loans offered to students were pretty significant and went up to $11,000,” he said. “I might have told my child that he or she needs to attend a less expensive university or a community college if I am a parent and I realize I am going to go $40,000 into debt. If you are from a family that does not have a big income, a $40,000 debt for a parent is prohibitively expensive.”

The University experienced a two percent drop in Hispanic student enrollment, a nine percent decrease in students from families with incomes less than $60,000 and a 14 percent decrease in first-generation students last year compared to fall 2010, according to figures obtained from the Office of Student Financial Services.

Printed on Thursday, September 13th, 2012 as: UT financial pilot plan to decrease loan burden on idebted students