Chronicle: Where were skeptics on tuition dereg?

By Clay Robison
Robison is chief of the Chronicle's Austin Bureau. (clay.robison@chron.com)
February 15, 2004

YOU probably have heard, many times, the old saying about the horse and the barn door. And if you have paid much attention to the doings of government, you probably have noticed, many times, how the horse has managed to bolt before anyone in authority has even found the door, much less tried to close it.

Remember all the political sputtering and acrobatics a couple of years ago over the homeowners' insurance crisis? State officials and candidates from Gov. Rick Perry on down professed outrage after premiums began to soar and coverage began to shrink. Only then did lawmakers try to close some barn-sized loopholes in a weak state regulatory scheme that had invited insurers to trample consumers.

Now, the governor and legislators are trying to avoid being caught in a growing stampede of university tuition increases. Some are even feigning surprise at the size of some of the rate hikes, fearing that an unhappy public reaction could grow.

They may be wondering if they will ever be able to close a door that they themselves threw wide open, giving university regents and chancellors free rein for the first time over an important budgetary item for thousands of Texas families.

Tuition deregulation, as it is called, may or may not prove to be a wise policy choice. Time will tell. But the scrutiny that lawmakers now seem to want to give to the subject would better have been done before the Legislature let the University of Texas and Speaker Tom Craddick ram deregulation into law during the closing days of last spring's session.

All the legislative oversight and audits that elected officials are belatedly ordering won't change the fact that many students and their families are going to be paying significantly more for college educations for the foreseeable future. Some already are.

Should anyone be surprised that the University of Texas, after making tuition deregulation its No. 1 priority last year, would immediately raise tuition at several of its campuses, including a 26 percent increase in tuition and fees at its flagship, UT-Austin? The increase will be spread over this spring and next fall.

The University of Houston increased spring tuition and fees by 12.3 percent, and Texas A&M University is considering a 21 percent hike for next fall. The increases are much greater than the more-gradual tuition boosts that lawmakers recently had allowed.

Legislative leaders assigned tuition "oversight" to a committee and ordered an audit of UT and A&M spending by the Legislative Budget Board. Perry directed university regents to set "accountability" standards for the tax money their schools receive.

All of the above may be valid steps, but they should have been taken before - not after - the Legislature gave up its control over tuition. Taken now, they resemble more than anything else a clumsy, transparent effort to cover some political posteriors.

Sure, some other states also give their universities similar tuition-setting authority. And, even with the new increases, tuition in Texas is still lower than in many other states. But that is small comfort for students and parents on tight budgets.

University of Texas officials used last year's budget cuts as an argument for deregulating tuition. With Perry signaling support, a watered-down bill was approved by the House, but the idea met strong opposition in the Senate. It finally became law only because Craddick demanded it as part of a deal on a new state budget.

Although some of the revenue from the higher tuition will be set aside for student aid, experts have warned, nevertheless, that the deregulation law will strain the state's limited resources for scholarships and grants, making it more difficult for many low- and middle-income students to attend college.

The law also is at least partly to blame for a recent state decision to stop accepting new enrollments in the once-popular Texas Tomorrow Fund, which allowed parents to pre-pay tuition at guaranteed rates.

In a recent meeting, state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, the House sponsor of deregulation, said uncertain market conditions were mainly to blame for killing the Tomorrow Fund. But a spokesman for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whose office oversees the program, said deregulation definitely was a factor.

"We didn't know how much it (tuition) was going to go up. You don't know how much to charge (for pre-payment plans) if you don't know what it's going to cost," he said.

The people in the statehouse may need some more blankets. It's drafty over there.