Bills seek cap on fast-rising college tuition

Some lawmakers want cost-setting back from regents

By JEFFREY GILBERT
Houston Chronicle
March 21, 2005


Tuition Controls

Several measures have been introduced in the Legislature that would affect how tuition and fees are set:

  • Cap tuition increases at 5 percent per year (Senate Bill 1554)
  • Require universities to roll back tuition for the 2005-06 school year to no more than 5 percent higher than what costs were for 2002-03 (SB 1554)
  • Remove regents' tuition-setting power entirely and give it back to legislators, as it was before 2003 (House Bills 1019 and 2687)
  • Cap tuition and fees at 3 percent per year (HB 2688)
  • Prohibit universities from setting designated tuition at more than $94 per semester hour (Rider on SB 1)



AUSTIN - A little more than a year after Texas public universities began setting their own tuition, several state lawmakers are working to take back control of the fees, saying some of the increased rates have gotten out of hand.

Bills have been filed in both the Senate and the House to cap the amount universities can raise tuition. Two House bills also have been filed to restore the Legislature's historical authority to set tuition and fees altogether, removing the power given to the regents last session.

The bills could find a more receptive audience in the Senate, where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and key senators were opposed to deregulating tuition in 2003.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, who forced the Senate to agree to tuition deregulation as part of a budget compromise last session, may be a roadblock to any change in the House.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would keep tuition from increasing more than 5 percent per year.

"I want to restrict the escalating cost of getting a college education," Ellis said.

The University of Texas regents this month approved another round of tuition hikes, this time instituting a flat-rate program for UT-Austin undergraduates.

With these increases, seniors this fall taking 14 hours will pay 45 percent more on average in tuition and fees than they did their freshman year.

Tuition at Texas A&M University increased 21 percent last year. A&M regents are meeting later this week to discuss further increases for this fall.

Under Ellis' plan, universities would have to roll back tuition and fees for the 2005-06 school year to no more than 5 percent higher than what costs were for 2002-03. Regents then would have the power to raise tuition 5 percent each year after 2006.

Two representatives - Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, and Pete Gallego, D-Alpine - have filed bills that would remove university regents' tuition-setting power entirely.

"You have tuition increases ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent," Coleman said. "That's a sticker shock to middle-class families in Texas that they've never seen before."

Expecting a fight from other representatives, Gallego also filed a bill to cap tuition and fee increases at 3 percent, hoping lawmakers might be more receptive to that.

8 percent funding hike

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee on Monday approved a budget that would increase funding for higher education by 8 percent, or about $800 million. Lawmakers said they hope the increased funds will help slow the tuition hikes.

"I really expect that our institutions of higher education will be adequately funded and there will not be a need to raise tuition in any significant way," said committee chairman Sen. Steve Ogden, R-College Station.

Included in the budget proposal, Senate Bill 1, is a rider that would prohibit universities from setting designated tuition, the portion of tuition rates universities are allowed to set themselves, at more than $94 per semester hour.

The only university affected immediately would be UT-Austin.

UT Chancellor Mark Yudof was unavailable for comment on the bills, but he wrote a letter to the Senate Finance Committee this month asking lawmakers to reconsider the rider.

Craddick was a strong proponent of the deregulation last session, agreeing to the Senate's $500 million funding increase for higher education only if deregulation occurred immediately.

Craddick's office said he wouldn't comment on the proposed bills until they reach the House floor for debate.

jeffrey.gilbert AT chron.com