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Prospects for return to tuition regulation best since '03
Tuition at Texas universities has more than doubled in the 12 years since state lawmakers authorized colleges to set their own rates.
Now legislators are pushing to take back that control. It's not a new idea, but it stands a chance for the first time since 2003, when the state deregulated tuition, largely because it enjoys rare bipartisan support.
At least three lawmakers, including Houston Democrat Sen. Rodney Ellis, have filed bills to re-regulate tuition in some way. The chair of the Senate's higher education committee, Kel Seliger, an Amarillo Republican, plans to pitch tying tuition increases to performance by colleges - essentially making them earn a tuition bump. And Dan Patrick, the state's new lieutenant governor, said last week that the "issue will be addressed this session."
"It marries together Democrats, who want to make higher education more affordable, and tea party conservatives who are inherently suspicious of higher education," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. "In some ways, this is a way for the Legislature to do something about education, but with relatively low cost."
The bipartisan interest stands in contrast to previous sessions, including 2013, when a bill by Ellis, who has pushed to end deregulation since 2003, didn't get a committee hearing.
But the issue is more complicated than just capping costs at universities. The 2003 vote to let colleges set their own rates was a tradeoff. The state faced a shortfall and was tightening its belt. It would cut higher education funding but would deregulate tuition in exchange, giving colleges some freedom to make up the loss.
The average cost to attend a state school more than doubled to $3,951 a semester in 2013. Tuition alone at the University of Houston increased 311 percent to $2,836 a semester in 2013.
"The fact is, the cost of a higher education is rising faster than Texas families can keep up," said Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Central Texas Republican whose district includes Texas A&M University. "I don't think it matters if you're a Democrat or a Republican, the ever-escalating cost of sending your kids to college represents a substantial concern for tens of thousands of Texans. I think there's going to be a great deal of support for this legislation from members on both sides of the aisle, and I'm happy to work with Senator Ellis, or any member of the Legislature for that matter, to make college more affordable for our Texas students."
State funding for higher education has increased only slightly since deregulation - not enough to account for growing enrollments or even to keep pace with inflation, university officials say.
Deregulation essentially transferred costs to the universities and their students. That's something Texas and other states have done for decades.
A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says students are now paying public colleges more than the states are. Tuition accounted for 25 percent of the average public college's revenue in 2012, up from 17 percent in 2003, the study found. That surpassed state funding, which accounted for 23 percent of schools' budgets in 2012.
Texas now funds less than 20 percent of the University of Texas at Austin's budget, for example, compared with 85 percent in the 1970s. State funding accounts for 22 percent of UH's budget now, compared with 61 percent in 1985. Students now pay for 42 percent of the budget, compared with 11 percent 30 years ago.
"We're kind of hamstrung in terms of what kind of funds we get from the state, and we have to make that up, unfortunately, with tuition," said Jason Smith, vice president of governmental and community relations at UH. "By ending tuition deregulation without breaking the funding gap, it will disproportionately hurt universities like the University of Houston that are trying to get to another level."
Ellis said he told university leaders in 2003 that they would lose in the deregulation tradeoff.
"You can never raise tuition enough to address your needs," Ellis recalled telling university leaders at the time. "You'll get the short end of the stick. Legislators will not appropriate money for you."
While Ellis says he will advocate for additional funding for higher education, his bill to end deregulation is actually the stricter of the two Senate bills that have been filed so far, because it would cap tuition at 2015 rates and require universities to get legislative approval to raise it. Mary González, a House Democrat from Clint, has proposed a similar bill.
The other Senate bill, by Schwertner, would allow for annual tuition increases based on inflation. Ellis and Schwertner have talked about finding a compromise bill, but Ellis said last week that he wouldn't support inflation-based increases, which he said is "almost like institutionalizing the thievery from middle class families."
The third possible route to re-regulation could fold in another popular higher education proposal: tying funding for universities to performance measures such as graduation rates. Seliger said he plans to file a bill that would tie tuition increases to those performance measures. He calls it "performance-based tuition."
State costs low overall
Seliger pointed out that while tuition has increased at a faster clip since deregulation, lawmakers weren't doing much to keep it down before. From 1994 to 2002, tuition and fees went up 102 percent.
"It was still increasing at a pretty good rate, because people wanted to see universities make big increases in improvement," he said.
And while tuition is on the rise in Texas, costs in the state remain below the national average. According to the College Board, students attending schools in the states where they lived paid $8,893 a year on average in 2013. In Texas, students paid $7,902.
Each vision for re-regulation will get a "full and public hearing," Seliger said.
"This ought to be a good, in-depth and robust conversation, but we're at the very start of it, not the end of it," he said. "I'm hoping that instead of just doing things to universities, which we have a tendency to do, I hope this provides an opportunity to do things with universities."