Dewhurst questions proposed tuition hikes

Senate leader wants lawmakers to review proposed increases

By Sharon Jayson
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, November 15, 2003

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday he expects University of Texas System regents to hold off approving tuition increases for 2004-05 when the board meets Tuesday.

"They agreed to consider my request that the Legislature have a chance to review what all the universities have proposed before they announced fall 2004-05," Dewhurst said. "It's my impression from talking to other people within the system that they have decided to hold off. My understanding is they're willing to."

Dewhurst said he is concerned that the proposed increases will make a college education unaffordable. He wants the Legislature to review the spring increases and financial aid options before university officials set fall rates. UT officials have said they will offer generous financial aid options to offset the burden for students.

Also on Friday, Dewhurst sent letters to state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, co-chairwomen of the Joint Select Committee on Higher Education, asking that they convene their panel to review the proposed increases.

On Tuesday, the UT System Board of Regents is scheduled to approve tuition hikes for the spring semester and increases for the following school year at 14 UT System campuses. All but one of the 15 campuses submitted tuition proposals to the UT System for consideration. The UT Health Center at Tyler is a teaching hospital that does not award degrees or charge tuition.

Top UT System officials said they have made no commitment to reconsider their plans.

"We haven't made any agreement with anyone," regents Chairman Charles Miller said.

UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof issued a written statement: "We are confident that when the U.T. System Board of Regents meets and considers proposals, that it will approve tuition plans that are reasonable, and affordable, and that meet the strategic needs of the state of Texas for providing the best education experience possible for students enrolled in our institutions." The statement did not address whether officials will suspend plans for tuition increases next year.

The UT System is the last of the state's six major university systems to announce increases for the spring, but it was the first to outline tuition hikes for the 2004-05 school year. The others, which include the Texas A&M, University of Houston, University of North Texas, Texas Tech and Texas State university systems, had not planned to consider tuition proposals for 2004-05 until spring, officials with those university systems said.

Dewhurst said he spoke with Yudof and Miller on Wednesday about his concerns and also with Shapiro and Morrison.

"I'm not trying to head off anyone," Dewhurst said. "My concern is meant equally for all the universities to permit the joint legislative oversight committee to meet in December and or January and look at tuition increases and financial aid and make sure no deserving students are left behind."

He listed his main concerns as affordability, accessibility and accountability. He said he believes the legislative committee can complete its work early next year so that the universities can proceed with proposals for 2004-05.

Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature relinquished its tuition-setting authority to university boards of regents.

The first opportunity to enact increases was for this spring. Increases approved include a $9 per semester credit hour hike at Texas A&M and a $19 per credit hour increase at the University of Houston. UT's campuses have proposed a range of increases for the spring, including a flat increase of $360 for full-time resident students at UT-Austin. Two UT System campuses -- UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American at Edinburg -- did not propose tuition hikes for the spring.

Since the state's universities starting detailing tuition proposals for the spring, Dewhurst said he's heard from legislators concerned about whether the increases might price Texas students out of a college education. He said legislators from both chambers have approached him about whether there would be enough financial aid for needy students.

"Some of the tuition increases at our public universities for spring 2004 are higher than what we had been led to believe when the Legislature passed tuition deregulation this year," Dewhurst said in his letter to Shapiro and Morrison.

The UT System's Commission on Tuition met Friday for the first day of a two-day session to produce recommendations for Yudof. He is expected to offer recommendations to the regents during a meeting Tuesday.

sjayson@statesman.com; 445-3620