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Texas lawmaker files bold plan to freeze, cap tuition

by Mark Wiggins | KHOU |
AUSTIN, Texas -- Life on campus isn't cheap.
From textbooks and transportation to food and housing, students have no shortage of expenses each semester. Yet whether students live on campus or at home, are Texas residents or from out of state, everyone must find a way to meet the rising cost of tuition each semester.
"It's gotten to the point where I've had to take out quite a few loans just to make ends meet," one University of Texas student told KVUE Thursday. Junior Liberal Arts major Emily Woody says many of her friends are in the same boat, and share concerns about life after college.
"Even if we get good jobs coming from UT, which we're capable, we're fully capable of, I'm afraid our generation, because of the rising rates of housing in big cities especially and because of the rising rates of tuition, we're just going to have loans and loans and loans for a long time," said Woody. "And debt."
It's a fear state Sen. Charles Schwertner has heard plenty of times. Representing a district that runs from the outskirts of Austin to College Station, Schwertner counts tens of thousands of Longhorns and Aggies among his constituents.
"The cost of higher education is growing faster than Texas families can keep up," Schwertner told KVUE.
That's why he's set his sights on reversing the effects of one of the most fundamental changes to public university tuition in the state's history. Faced with rising university costs and decreased funding, the Texas Legislature voted in 2003 to surrender its control over tuition rates and deregulate public university tuition.
The law signed by Gov. Rick Perry freed public universities to set their own tuition rates, which they promptly raised.
"Tuition deregulation was thought to produce increased affordable and competition and market forces to drive the cost of higher education down," said Schwertner. "Tuition deregulation has failed in my opinion."
In fact, a new report from the Texas Comptroller's officeshows tuition and fees at Texas universities have doubled in the decade since deregulation, rising 90 percent over 2003 levels. In the same period, Texas student debt has shot up 61 percent. You can read the full report HERE.
This week Schwertner filed a bill aimed to stop the increases. Senate Bill 233would freeze tuition and fees for a year, then limit future increases to the rate of inflation. The Republican senator defended his proposal in an op-ed piece for the Texas Tribune, and says ending deregulation is not on attack on free markets for one key reason.
"Well it's not really a free market," explained Schwertner. He instead describes college tuition as a market distorted by a proliferation of easily accessible student loans, which combine with increasing operating costs to create an endless feedback loop driving prices uncontrollably upward.
The end result is students entering the workforce saddled with debt and unable to finance large purchases such as a home or a vehicle. It's a situation Schwertner says has trickle-down effects throughout the economy. The bottom line -- something has to change.
"Without an educated workforce, the Texas economy is not going to thrive," said Schwertner. "And the only way to have an educated workforce is to have access to affordable higher education."