Deregulation of tuition out of Senate bill

Measure includes January increase in state university cost

By Michele Kay
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Wednesday, April 16, 2003

A key Senate panel on Tuesday backed down from an earlier pledge to deregulate tuition at state universities, voting instead for a more modest tuition increase and a commitment to reopen the issue in two years.

Senate Bill 1542 by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, would allow state universities to increase tuition by a maximum of $12 a credit hour, effective next January. Including a previously approved $4 per semester increase, tuition would rise from the current $88 to $104 a semester hour.

Shapiro's proposal, plus the previously approved $4 increase, would translate into an increase of $480 a year for two semesters for students taking 15 hours a semester. In January 2005, tuition could increase by an additional $4 a credit hour or $120 for the year.

With universities looking at state funding cuts of as much as $1 billion for the biennium, chancellors had hoped that lawmakers would consider deregulation, which would give them greater freedom to set tuition rates. Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said universities would probably see their appropriations from the state cut by 12 percent to 15 percent.

"I am not sure they are going to be thrilled," Shapiro said. "But we are not prepared to give them the full flexibility. We have moved the ball down the field some."

The bill, approved unanimously by Shapiro's committee, also would allow universities, starting this fall, to cut tuition for classes held at less popular times, such as early in the morning, or for others that are not in high demand.

Universities would be required to set aside between 15 percent and 20 percent of the amount of the tuition increase for work-study or zero interest loan programs. Shapiro said she wanted to make sure all students had access to universities, regardless of family income.

Although the tuition deregulation effort appears dead in the Senate, a House panel is continuing to consider it. Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee, has introduced House Bill 3015, which would allow universities to set their own tuition as long as they fund scholarships and grants to assist middle-class families. The goal is for families not to spend more than 5 percent of their gross income on their child's undergraduate tuition.

Morrison's bill has been stalled in her committee for more than two weeks as she tries to work out its details.

Shapiro said she backed away from her original plan to partially unshackle the hands of universities because she had hoped to tie the amount that Texas universities could charge to tuition in the nation's 10 most populous states. But she discovered that the comparison was not possible because each state used different formulas and fees.

"We decided that the best thing to do was an interim study," Shapiro said.

The study would look at the cost, accessibility, affordability and accountability of state universities and allow lawmakers to reconsider deregulating tuition in two years.

An amendment by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, would force lawmakers to rewrite the rules governing higher education tuition and fees by January 2006.

"We ought to start over," he said, adding that the rules are inconsistent and often incomprehensible.

The reaction from universities is likely to differ: Smaller campuses will probably be satisfied with the Senate proposal, and larger ones will probably complain that they cannot keep their programs and standards with reduced resources.

Ricardo Roma, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio, testified in support of Shapiro's bill.

But in an interview, Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, was more guarded.

"This is a good first start toward tuition flexibility, but many high growth campuses will not be able to maintain their current programs unless there is more flexibility," he said.

The concept of deregulating tuition was first proposed last year by Mark Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System. Tom Scott of the UT Office of Governmental Relations described the Senate proposal as "a step in the right direction."

Students, many from UT-Austin, asked Shapiro not to deregulate tuition. They said they want that prerogative to be kept by lawmakers, who are accountable to voters.

Students also opposed lower tuition for classes held at less desirable hours.

"The best profs teach in prime time, which would be the most expensive classes. You are pricing students out of taking the best classes," said Kyle Carlton, a junior at Texas A&M University.

mkay@statesman.com; 445-3635