Lawmakers inclined to boost UT-Austin's budget

Tuition cap, financial aid still under debate

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, March 26, 2005
Austin American Statesman

The still-evolving state budget for the next two years includes elements that have officials of the University of Texas alternately pleased, concerned and uncertain.

An earlier version would have given UT $8.5 million less in general revenue for the 2006-07 budget than it currently receives. That would have eroded the school's ability to make repairs, pay competitive faculty salaries and reduce class sizes.

Instead, the statewide appropriations bill approved by the Senate this week would increase the school's allocation by about $25 million, or 5.25 percent, over current spending. But campus officials are disappointed by a provision, also approved by the Senate, that would effectively prohibit a boost in the portion of tuition controlled by the university's governing board.

The UT System Board of Regents approved an increase earlier this month that would result in many students paying 4.75 percent more in tuition and fees, while others would pay less or more depending on their areas of study and course loads.

It's unclear whether the Senate's cap, assuming it becomes law, would force the regents to backpedal.

One option for sidestepping a limit on tuition would be for the regents to increase mandatory fees instead, as some other universities have done.

Up to now, UT has preferred to boost tuition because a portion of that revenue — unlike fees — is earmarked for financial aid.

"We've tried to be forthright and focus on total cost of education, not individual pieces," Kevin Hegarty, UT's vice president and chief financial officer, said Friday. "You can reload the buckets of cost to put more in one and less in another if that's what's ultimately required."

The House, which has not approved its version of the budget, is poised to boost UT's allocation of general revenue by $11 million for the 2006-07 biennium, according to an analysis by the UT System. The House bill contains no cap on tuition.

Differences between the House and Senate bills would be resolved by a conference committee. And there, too, lies uncertainty.

House Speaker Tom Craddick has been a strong proponent of allowing regents to set a portion of tuition, which until two years ago was a power that lawmakers had reserved solely for themselves.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, has repeatedly expressed concern, most recently this week, about the sizable tuition increases that have occurred at UT and other campuses since the Legislature granted tuition-setting power to regents.

Even under the current system, the Legislature still controls a portion of tuition, the so-called statutory tuition. The statutory tuition at UT and other schools is currently $720 a semester and is scheduled to go up by $30 in September.

The so-called designated tuition, which is set by the regents, is currently $1,410 a semester at UT, the highest among the state's public universities.

But designated tuition, statutory tuition and required fees together total $2,867 a semester at UT, which is less than what students are charged at Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and UT-Dallas.

Also unresolved is a debate about financial aid. The Senate-approved appropriations bill for 2006-07 would provide $294 million for need-based scholarships known as the TEXAS Grants, which students do not have to repay.

That would be $30 million less than in the current budget.

Other proposals would shift many students from TEXAS Grants to the B-On-Time loan program, which carries no interest and does not have to be repaid if the student graduates in four years with at least a B average.

But shifting students to loans would make it harder for Hispanics and blacks to attend college, warned Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in a letter this week to UT President Larry Faulkner.

That is because members of those minority groups make up about 60 percent of TEXAS Grant recipients, and only 16.8 percent of the recipients graduate within four years, Ellis wrote.

Only 22.6 percent of all public university students graduate within four years, and not all of them have at least a B average, he added.