Bills may give UT regents more leeway

Legislation would mean more flexibility in pricing tuition

By Michele Kay
Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Chancellors from the state's six largest university systems reportedly have signed off on a plan that would give regents more freedom to set their own tuitions, potentially increasing the cost of college by more than $2,700 a year.

The chancellors met on Wednesday with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and agreed that greater flexibility in pricing tuition was the best option to make up expected cuts in state appropriations.

Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, plans to file a bill today or Friday on the issue, which was first raised late last year by University of Texas Chancellor Mark Yudof. A bill dealing with the same question is also expected to be filed this week in the House.

"We are proposing flexibility, not deregulation," Shapiro said. "We are not going to give them a carte blanche."

Though the Senate bill will deal only with tuition increases, the House version is expected to include protection for students from low- and middle-income families.

Originally, Yudof was the sole proponent of the plan, which had stalled largely because of a lack of support from other university chancellors.

"The university systems have had different voices. We needed unanimity among at least the top six systems," Shapiro said.

On Wednesday, the chancellors came together, although details of the agreement are still being worked out.

"All the university systems realize that if the state is not able to provide general revenue as it has done historically, tuition flexibility is no longer an option," said Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas system.

"It will be a necessity if we are going to maintain current services. It is the only way to fill gaps without reducing course offerings or faculty," Jackson said.

Don Brown, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said his agency would support flexible tuition as long as it included a commitment to increase university enrollment and provide appropriate financial aid to students.

Shapiro's bill puts three options on the table for lawmakers. The first would be the most drastic, allowing universities to triple the portion of their tuition set by regents. That amount is currently capped at $44 per credit hour and will rise to $46 per hour in the fall.

Tuition and fees at state universities now range from $2,500 to about $5,340 a year. On average, students at the University of Texas at Austin who take 14 hours a semester pay the higher amount.

The proposal would allow universities to raise their tuition by a maximum of about $2,760 a year. Jackson said most universities would look at increases of $20 a semester hour, which would translate into an annual hike of $560.

The second option, proposed by Dewhurst, would require the increase to be staggered over a period of time.

The final proposal would be to use the average tuition charged by the nation's five largest states as a basis for the amount Texas should charge. The state uses this method to calculate out-of-state tuition rates.

Although Shapiro's bill will not include provisions that would tie tuition with family income, she said she wanted to make sure that state universities remained accessible and affordable to all Texans.

Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee, refused to give details of the bill she will file this week. She said she has met with university officials and her bill would reflect their needs.

Morrison added that in addition to tuition flexibility, her legislation would provide grants for students from poor and middle-class families. "I want to make sure that we don't price out the middle class," Morrison said.

Another proposal likely to emerge this week could be filed by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan. His bill would give regents and students more control over their university's budget.

Ogden filed a similar bill four years ago. "Higher ed killed it. Now they may be sorry," he said.; 445-3635