Charles Schwertner

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

Texas legislators and UT System administrators are squaring off over the role of the legislature in setting — or limiting — University tuition rates.

Six separate bills in favor of state tuition regulation have been filed in the House and the Senate, and UT System Chancellor William McRaven has spoken out as an opponent of the policy change. In an interview with the Texas Tribune on Thursday, McRaven said he does not support tuition regulation and thinks universities should continue to have control over their tuition rates. 

University Designated Tuition was deregulated in 2003, allowing universities to set their own tuition rates. Since then, in-state tuition has risen on average from $2,721 to $4,905 per semester, though for the past four years in-state tuition prices have remained relatively consistent. Out-of-state tuition was increased by 2.6 percent in fall 2014.

“[Deregulation] that was put in place in 2003 has simply failed,” said state Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown).

McRaven said he is in favor of keeping decisions regarding tuition in the hands of the Board of Regents. 

“I do think we need to continue to have tuition deregulated,” McRaven said in the interview. “We need to be smart and thoughtful about how we have tuition increases.”

Geetika Jerath, president of the Senate of College Councils, said she agreed with the chancellor and said it is important students and University officials have a say in tuition.

“Tuition has not been raised significantly under their control,” Jerath said in an email to the Texan. “Students are involved in the process that decides tuition when a tuition proposal is requested by the Board, and this is critical. We need to secure our voice because tuition affects every student.”

In-state, undergraduate tuition for one long semester at UT ranges from $4,673 in the College of Liberal Arts to $5,369 in the McCombs School of Business.

Schwertner said he is worried student debt will derail students from college.

“I’m concerned about the students that we have on our higher-education campuses,” Schwertner said. “They are getting out of school mired with debt and frustrated with the lack of opportunities.”

It is important to maintain a high quality education while keeping tuition affordable and student debt low, according to state Rep. Walter Price (R-Amarillo).

“What’s the use of having the best universities if students can’t afford to attend them?” Price said.  

McRaven said a majority of students from low-income families receive the best deal possible.

“Those families that are earning under $40,000 [per year], most of them don’t pay anything for tuition and fees,” McRaven said in the interview. “if you look at the statistics, you say is it a good deal — it’s not only a good deal, it’s a great deal.”

In comments to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, McRaven said lowered tuition could prove damaging to the quality of education the University provides.

“If you want to make college so affordable that the quality of education comes down, then I don’t think that affordability is worth a return on your investment,” McRaven said.

Price said he supports student control of university fees outside of designated tuition, if the student body voices their desire for the fee.  

“Every university has its own unique characteristics and needs,” Price said. “If there is a need to maybe have a fee to create something students can enjoy on campus, we’re not trying to limit that.”

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

In a continued effort to prioritize higher education in this year’s legislative session, a group of six legislators are working to provide a tax exemption on certain textbooks. 

Rep. Mary González (D-El Paso), Rep. Ana Hernandez (D-Houston), Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville), Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) and Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), individually filed bills that would offer part-time or full-time students at accredited public or private universities a tax exemption on textbooks each semester. 

If passed, each of the bills would set a time period during which students could purchase textbooks tax-free. 

“As we discuss curving tuition cost and financial aid opportunities, it was important for us to look at the spiking cost in textbook costs that students have to purchase each year,” Hernandez said.  

Canales, Hernandez and Schwertner’s bills set aside a week-long exemption period at the start of each semester. Zaffirini’s bill set aside 10 days, Lucio’s set aside one month and González’s set no time limit on the tax exemption.

Michael Kiely, course materials director at University Co-op, said the first week of the semester is typically the busiest for textbook sales and said the store would support sales tax exemptions.

“I’m not entirely sure what the impact of a sales tax exemption would have on textbook sales, but I can’t help but think it would be a positive thing for the consumer,” Kiely said in an email to The Daily Texan. “This is an initiative that would help lower the cost of course materials for students at UT, and the Co-op would be in favor of that.”

Canales said he hopes the bill will help more students afford day-to-day expenses while attending college. 

“Education is the greatest equalizer, so, essentially, what these bills do is they make education more affordable,” Canales said.

Schwertner said passing a textbook tax exemption bill is “the least we can do” to aid students who are struggling financially.

“The fact is, the cost of higher education is rising faster than Texas families can … keep up,” Schwertner said. “The price of tuition, fees and textbooks have all risen dramatically over the last decade, and, collectively, they are turning the dream of a college education into a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Since 1999, similar bills have been filed in the State House of Representatives and Senate but failed to pass, with the last bill filed in the 83rd legislative session. Zaffirini said the bill failed because of concerns over revenue loss.

Zaffirini said her most recent bill will only apply to students eligible for financial aid — a factor she thinks will lessen the bill’s financial impact on the state and increase its chances of passing. 

“In the past, we have heard opposition from certain municipalities that rely on sales tax revenue from textbook sales,” Zaffirini said. “We are hopeful that they will be more amenable to this session’s revised legislation.”

Hernandez said she thinks lowering the cost of higher education is an opportunity for Republican and Democrat lawmakers to work together.

“There are so many issues we can work on in a bipartisan fashion,” Hernandez said. “I think this is one of them. We are interested in helping our college students not graduate with so much debt and making education more accessible to everyone.”

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

On Friday, July 12, after more than nine hours of discussion on the Texas Senate floor, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 2, an omnibus abortion bill by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Murphy) that criminalizes abortions that occur more than 20 weeks post-fertilization (unless the fetus suffers a “severe fetal abnormality” or the pregnancy poses a “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function” to the mother) and requires abortion facilities to meet the standards required of ambulatory surgical centers. The bill also mandates that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a hospital located within 30 miles of the clinic where the abortion is performed.

Planned Parenthood has predicted that the financial burden of meeting these regulations could potentially force all but five abortion clinics in the state to close, severly restricting the ability of Texas women to receive safe and legal abortions. 

The idea that women might seek out abortions, whether or not legal and safe options are available, seemed largely lost on Texas legislators, who, in their unwillingness to accept a single one of the 47 amendments offered in the Senate and the House, seemed willfully ignorant of this possibility. 

We understand the Texas Senate’s desire to challenge Roe v. Wade by passing a law that restricts abortions past 20 weeks. We recognize the compellingness of the argument made by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) for protecting a five-month-old fetus, which she made during the debate when she held up a picture of a fetus that far along. (Zaffirini, though pro-life, voted against the bill on the basis that it would restrict access to women’s healthcare.) 

But if Texas legislators are going to be moved by arguments as simple and beautiful as the image of a fetus at five months, they should also recognize the simple truth that people will have unprotected sex, and therefore unintended pregnancies and the desire for an abortion, whether the state restricts access to the procedure or not, and whether or not that sex offends their own sensibilites. 

Given these realities, why were amendments that bolstered evidenced-based sex education and funding for family planning cast aside in party-line votes? 

If we had to point to one moment in Friday night’s debate, which, for the most part, saw respectful and well-argued perspectives from both sides of the aisle, that sent our stomachs churning (excepting, of course, the descriptions of child rape, incest and pregnancies endangering the life of the mother shared by Democratic senators attempting to convince their colleagues to amend, or at least think twice before voting in favor of, the legislation) we would certainly point our fingers straight at Sen. Dan Patrick’s (R-Houston) closing comments.

Patrick’s speech may have confused many viewers of the Senate live-stream into thinking they had accidentally switched from viewing the proceedings of the Texas Legislature to viewing the proceedings of a “Dan Patrick for Lieutenant Governor” campaign rally. (Patrick announced he would challenge Dewhurst for that position on June 27, just before the start of the second special session.)

Other members of the Republican caucus, such as Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), and Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flowermound), gave closing arguments in support of HB 2 that hinged on deeply personal stories and conceded the difficulty of the issue at hand.

Both Nelson and Schwertner acknowledged the connection between unwanted pregnancies and abortions and called for both increased funding for women’s health care and evidence-based sex education.

In his comments, Schwertner even saw fit to address why he had voted “no” on the many amendments offered that night.

“You have noticed I didn’t vote for any amendments this evening,” Schwertner said. “I think it’s too important to get this bill passed and get it to the governor’s office…however, I can say I’ve heard the proposals this evening from my Democratic colleagues, which I believe merit further consideration.”

Schwertner’s words are not as reassuring as even a single “yes” vote on one of the many amendments offered would have been. And they hint at the disturbing inability of the Republicans in power to accept even a rape and incest exception to the 20-week ban. But they are still valuable words, and next to Patrick’s statements, Schwertner’s comments look downright courageous.

Patrick’s speech could also, like Schwertner’s and Nelson’s, be characterized as “deeply personal”— in that he managed to spend his time at the microphone throwing out deeply insulting, personal insults at both women who have chosen to have abortions and at the many citizens of Texas whose religious beliefs do not match his own.

In his speech, Patrick implied that women who chose abortions do so flippantly, because having a child wouldn’t be “convenient” for them. Tired of merely implying that people with different opinions were somehow lesser than him, he went on to explicitly say that supporters of HB 2 were “listening a little more closely” to God than the bill’s opponents, just before he referred to God as a “he” and asked “how God would vote.” 

Patrick’s comments on this divise and difficult issue rang of political opportunism at its worst and reminded us why Americans outside the state of Texas so often dismiss this wonderful place as prejudiced and backwards.

There are universally compelling arguments for banning abortion after 20 weeks. There are also universally compelling arguments for having sex, arguments that the state will have little luck in challenging. 

Legislators have passed HB 2. Now, they need to confront the issues of family planning, sex education and sexual violence against women, all causes which can lead to abortion.