Repealing tuition deregulation has become a rallying cry for many Texas students as college costs have increased each year since lawmakers allowed universities to adjust their own tuition rates.
Some lawmakers unsuccessfully tried last year to retake tuition-setting authority or limit the amount rates could grow, and a Senate subcommittee plans to discuss the issue again Monday.
But Texas isn’t the only state struggling with spiraling tuition rates, and tuition increases here are only slightly larger than others around the country in that period, an Associated Press analysis found. In fact, all but seven of Texas’ 35 public universities charged less than the national average this year.
Universities say it simply costs more to provide a quality education today. And since state funding nationwide isn’t growing as fast as enrollment or inflation, students are bearing a bigger share of the financial burden.
”No one likes higher prices, and I appreciate that,” University of Texas System Chancellor Mark Yudof said. “But I would say it’s our responsibility to maintain a quality education. … Tuition is our effort to maintain our quality.”
Tuition and fees at Texas public universities cost an average of $4,857 for this school year, according to information submitted by the schools to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That’s 28 percent higher than in 2002-03, the year before deregulation, once those figures are adjusted for inflation.
The average cost of tuition and fees at the nation’s public universities was $5,491 this year, according to the College Board. That’s up 25 percent from 2002-03 after accounting for inflation.
Although state appropriations to the nation’s public universities increased 3.5 percent for the 2005 fiscal year, constant per-student funding was at its lowest level in 25 years, according to a March report by State Higher Education Executive Officers, a group of top state higher education officials.
That’s because administrators are getting a little more state funding to serve a lot more students, Yudof said. For example, UT-Tyler has 61 percent more students this year than it did in 2002-03, but its state funding only increased by about 13 percent.
”It’s just like a family,” Yudof said. “If you had two children and you added a third, if income stays the same, you have less money to spend per child.”
Even as the economy improves, higher tuition is probably here to stay, said David Breneman, an economist and higher education funding expert who is dean of the University of Virginia’s education school.
Across the country, higher education is increasingly viewed as an opportunity that mainly benefits, and should be paid for by, individuals, he said.
That’s upsetting for students like Isaiah Warner, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Houston, where tuition and fees have increased the most since 2002-03. Tuition and fees there averaged roughly $6,450 for this school year, up 56 percent.
The youngest of five children, Warner is putting himself through school by substitute teaching three days a week. Other than subsidized loans, he qualifies for little financial aid because he made too much teaching and managing a sandwich shop last year.
”I’ll be lucky to graduate about $45,000 in debt, so any increase in tuition is a pretty big deal,” said Warner, a La Porte native.
Stories like Warner’s trouble state Sen. Royce West, a Democrat from Dallas who chairs the Senate’s higher education subcommittee. He said he’ll keep an open mind going into Monday’s hearing, but he wants to know if tuition deregulation is preventing young people from going to college.
”I think that it’s real clear that the Legislature wants a more serious look, if you will, at raising tuition … and the impact that it has on accessibility and affordability,” he said.
Universities have used the extra money in different ways, from hiring professors and improving salaries for current faculty members to expanding mentoring and counseling programs aimed at keeping students in school.
University of Houston Provost Donald J. Foss said in an e-mail that raising tuition is helping his school’s effort to become a “major research resource for Texas.”
”To achieve that, we have needed to pursue excellence in all areas, included the student to faculty ratio,” he said, adding that the university started with lower tuition and fees and now charges about the same as the state’s other top-tier schools.
At the UT System’s nine undergraduate campuses, tuition deregulation has given administrators the freedom to adopt new tuition strategies that push students through school and into the working world more quickly, Yudof said.
For example, the flagship UT-Austin campus began charging a flat rate for tuition last fall. That means the more credits a student takes, the less each credit costs. Other campuses are offering discounts for taking early morning or weekend classes or guaranteeing tuition rates for four years.
While a June report from the state auditor’s office found tuition increases at UT-Austin, the University of Houston, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University appeared to be reasonable, the anti-deregulation movement could gain momentum as November’s gubernatorial election approaches.
Democratic candidate Chris Bell has called tuition deregulation a “miserable failure” and vowed to end it if elected. But Republican Gov. Rick Perry has been a strong deregulation supporter, saying market forces will prevent universities from charging more than students can pay.
West said he hopes to take a step toward understanding the true effects of tuition deregulation at Monday’s hearing.
”Tuition deregulation is a part of how we now finance higher education in the state of Texas, and the question becomes whether or not it’s working,” he said.