Texas A&M University to Review Programs, as Budget Cuts Loom

February 27, 2003, Thursday
By Matt Flores

Even though the state's fiscal crunch is threatening public college budgets, Texas A&M University will consider a proposal to set its own tuition only as a last resort, university President Robert Gates said Wednesday.

"I'd rather not stick it to the students first," Gates said, responding to a question about tuition deregulation at a meeting with the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board.

Although he told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education last week that he supported deregulating tuition, the A&M president said he first would push the Legislature to fully fund the state's system for distributing higher education dollars and advocate that lawmakers keep up with funds needed to maintain current college services.

"If they can't do that, then we have to turn to some flexibility on the tuition," Gates said.

Increasingly, some higher education officials are touting tuition deregulation because of the state's shrinking role in funding public colleges and universities.

Last December, the University of Texas System unveiled a proposal that would give its campuses the freedom to set tuition and distribute funds as they see fit. The idea is to let institutions set prices relative to what they believe the market will bear.

The state Legislature is responsible for setting tuition at all public colleges and universities, which currently is capped at $ 88 per semester-credit-hour.

The UT System proposal also included a guarantee that education expenses would be paid for students from families at or below the state's median income, currently about $ 41,000 annually.

UT System officials say they support tuition deregulation because the state's role in funding UT-Austin and Texas A&M -- the state's two premier public institutions -- has waned.

Between 20 and 25 years ago, the state funded about 50 percent of all operational budgets for UT System campuses. Currently, the state provides an average 28.4 percent of the system's academic campus budgets.

Support also has diminished for Texas A&M. In fiscal 1994, the state funded 39 percent of the institution's operational budget. For fiscal 2003, it funded only 31 percent.

"I believe the direction of state support has been clear," Gates said.

Joe Krier, chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said he supports the notion that the state maintain funding services for the state's two flagship campuses while continuing to give growing support to other institutions.

Like all other public institutions, Texas A&M has been charged with submitting a budget request that includes a reduction of 12.5 percent over the next two years. Lawmakers asked for the cuts to address the state's projected $ 9.9 billion shortfall.

To meet the mandate, Gates said administrators will review "every department and every program" before coming up with a plan that includes cuts. He said he would avoid proposing cuts to every department.

"Across-the-board cuts are a very crude way to deal with budget cuts," Gates said.

Among other things, he said, staff will look at restructuring opportunities, cutting layers of supervision and purchasing practices.