Bill caps all state universities' tuition

Measure, seen as slap at UT-Austin, now goes to full Senate

By: Stephen Scheibal, Staff
Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted to slap the University of Texas with a tuition cap that would effectively prevent officials from raising rates above the current level of $94 per credit hour.

The vote came a day before the UT System Board of Regents meets to vote on a proposal that would, in fact, raise tuition 4.75 percent. The increase was not considered particularly controversial before Wednesday's Finance Committee meeting, which drew attention to the escalation of tuition costs since the Legislature allowed campuses to set their own rates two years ago.

If schools opted to exceed the tuition cap, they would lose some state funding, depending on how much the tuition was increased.

The tuition cap must be approved by the full Senate and the House to take effect.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the measure's author, hopes it will take effect this fall.

"I think we've kind of created a runaway mine train," said Williams, a Texas A&M University graduate who has two sons there. He added later that he reluctantly supported deregulating tuition two years ago, and "it has exceeded my worst nightmares."

Williams said the proposal, which will be attached to the budget that is being crafted by the Finance Committee, was designed to put the brakes on all Texas universities.

But his tuition cap of $94 per credit hour equals the going rate at UT-Austin, or $1,410 for a full semester course load. Including fees and other costs, the university charges students $2,867 per semester, according to a UT System report.

Texas Tech, Texas A&M and UT-Dallas all have higher total bills but lower tuition costs, the report said.

Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said the measure represented an attack on UT that would constrain officials there while allowing other universities to raise tuition up to Williams' cap.

She said she has introduced a separate bill that would freeze tuition for all universities if they didn't meet certain standards.

"This is about, 'How do we get the University of Texas at Austin?' " Shapiro said.

UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof said in a letter to the committee that the measure not only affects only one university, but it also would encourage higher fees, reduce financial aid money and discourage a planned flat-rate tuition system, which would charge all students as though they were taking a full load of classes. The system is designed to help students graduate faster, Yudof said.

"Simply put, the proposal penalizes the University of Texas at Austin for being innovative in its move to flat-rate tuition, for being proactive in using tuition as a tool to encourage timely graduation . . . and for being sensitive to the need of low- and middle-income students for the financial aid that makes access to this great institution a possibility," Yudof wrote in the letter.

System officials declined to comment on what effect Wednesday's vote might have on today's regents meeting.

"Whatever they do, they do," UT President Larry Faulkner said.

Two years ago, legislators gave universities the power to set their own tuition rates.

At the time, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and many other lawmakers swung between ambivalence and outright opposition to tuition deregulation. But both Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick wanted to give universities the ability to set their own tuition.

The initiative appeared dead until the end of the 2003 session, when the Senate pushed to add $500 million to the state's higher education budget. Craddick said he would go along if the Senate approved deregulation.

UT has since raised its tuition and fees 37 percent. University officials said the increases made up for decreases in state higher education money.

Craddick spokeswoman Heather Tindall declined to comment specifically on the committee vote, saying the speaker would let the legislative process take its course.

The vote will cast a pall over the regents' tuition discussion today. The regents had told campuses to hold increases to 5 percent or less, board Chairman James Huffines said.

Dewhurst unveiled Williams' proposal to reporters Wednesday. He expressed his own concerns about escalating tuition costs as well as the Legislature's commitment to keep universities affordable.

"I don't want to see our youngsters priced out of the opportunity to go to college," Dewhurst said.

sscheibal AT statesman.com; 445-3819