Colleges might get free rein on tuition

Deregulation is trade-off for House, Senate leaders in budget deal

By Michele Kay
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Monday, May 26, 2003

Although members of both the House and Senate have balked at giving universities the freedom to set their own tuition, the lawmakers who negotiated a deal for the state budget have included it in their final proposal.

Initially intended as a trade-off for cuts to the universities' state money, the tuition deregulation proposal has instead become a political trade-off between the House and Senate leadership.

And instead of the slower, more moderate pace of deregulation the House has already approved, lawmakers now are expected to give universities an immediate free rein.

In return for House support of the Senate's budget proposal to add 500 million dollars more for state universities than the House had envisaged, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst agreed to muster votes for a tuition deregulation proposal the House is expected to send to the Senate.

"This has nothing to do with balancing the budget," Dewhurst said Monday. "We have agreed to pass whatever the House passes on deregulation."

Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee, said she believes deregulation is needed to make the budget work.

Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, a budget negotiator who has opposed tuition deregulation, said the deal gives the state's 35 upper-level institutions 1 percent less state funding than in the current two-year budget cycle. Earlier predictions were for deeper cuts that would have forced universities to cut classes and severely reduce pro- grams.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, has led the effort for tuition deregulation since the early days of the legislative session.

"It's going to happen," he said during the weekend.

Craddick has argued that the programs, classes and facilities of campuses vary significantly, and that their tuition should reflect those differences.

Even before lawmakers convened in Austin in January, University of Texas System Chancellor Mark Yudof was pushing the idea.

To date, the House has voted to support House Bill 3015, which lets universities increase tuition by a semester hour in 2004 and 2005. The schools then would be deregulated for one year.

Efforts by Morrison for broader deregulation had failed.

In an effort to appease suburban Republicans, she added a provision that requires universities to set aside 20 percent of their tuition increases for grants to middle-class families.

For each increase, universities would set aside million a year for the grants.

Morrison now is expected to reintroduce immediate deregulation, as an amendment to a separate bill or to House Bill 3015, when House and Senate lawmakers negotiate differences between their plans.

A Senate panel earlier this year approved the tuition increases but voted to study deregulation further.

The Senate version of House Bill 3015 is scheduled for debate by the full Senate today.

"There's a lot of discontent on the floor with free-flowing tuition deregulation," Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said.

Shapiro, who heads the Senate Education Committee, will introduce an amendment that would slow down the effective date of deregulation by postponing it to 2005 and turning it over to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The board would assess how well universities have done in increasing enrollment, diversifying their student body and catering to middle class as well as lower income families before deciding whether they deserve to be given full deregulation.

Morrison said deregulation is not synonymous with increases.

"More flexibility will mean they're going to be better able to manage," she said.

Also on Monday, the House agreed to limit the number of students admitted to the state's flagship universities in Austin and College Station under the "top 10 percent" rule.

The University of Texas at Austin has complained that more than 70 percent of its freshman class in fall 2003 will be students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class.

Although the plan had been to limit admissions under the program to half of the two universities' freshman enrollment, Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, passed an amendment increasing that cap to 60 percent.

That change was attached to Senate Bill 86, which requires students to take a rigorous class schedule to be eligible for top 10 ranking. It heads back to the Senate to consider House changes.

mkay@statesman.com; 445-3635