By Joshua Benton
Twenty years ago, four years of college in Texas cost less than a new Betamax. Now, the price tag is more like that of a new car.
The cost of attending a public four-year university in Texas has shot up 63 percent in the last decade, even after adjusting for inflation. That’s the fourth-largest increase of any state over that period, according to a study published Thursday.
“The Legislature has decided to pass more of the cost of education on to students and away from the state,” said Ray Grasshoff, assistant director for governmental relations for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The study, issued by the nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said that with tuition costs increasing nationally, college has become less affordable for the poorest Americans at a time when changes in the economy make a college degree more essential than ever.
In 1980, a year’s tuition at an American public four-year university represented about 13 percent of the annual income of poor families. By 2000, it was 25 percent.
Even with recent increases, Texas is still a cheaper place to go to school than most. The average annual cost of tuition and fees at a four-year Texas school is $2,841, the study said. That’s well below the national average of $3,385 and the most expensive state, New Jersey, where tuition averages $5,762. (California is the cheapest: $1,897.)
Texas no longer offers quite the great deal it once did. For years, students at Texas universities paid a flat fee of $50 a semester, regardless of how many courses they took.
In 1971, Texas switched to charging state residents $4 per semester hour, or about $50 to $70 for a full semester’s course load. Texas schools were also a steal for out-of-state students, who paid $40 per semester hour ? less than some other states charged for in-state tuition.
The state’s immense oil and gas revenues allowed Texas to keep tuition so low. Texas’ 1876 state constitution created the Permanent University Fund, which set aside the revenues generated by 2.1 million acres of West Texas land for higher education. Every new well on that land made college cheaper for Texans. The fund is now worth more than $7 billion.
“When we had an oil-based economy in Texas, we actually did well,” said Phil Diebel, vice president for finance and business affairs at the University of North Texas.
Then the Oil Patch went bust, and the money dried up. In 1985, the Legislature tripled tuition, and it’s been edging northward about $2 per hour each year since.
State law currently limits tuition to $42 per semester hour, but schools are also allowed to charge an additional “designated tuition” fee that can double the cost. At the University of Texas in Austin, for example, the current total tuition cost is $84 per hour for Texas residents, and $295 an hour for out-of-staters.
Ten years ago, tuition at Texas four-year schools was the fifth-lowest of the 50 states. Last year, it had dropped to 16th-lowest.
Lauren Page, a junior English major at the University of Texas at Arlington, said tuition costs wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all those extra fees. “It’s all the little bitty charges they get you with,” she said. “Ten dollars for this, $75 for that.”
Ms. Page earned her first two years worth of credits at several Dallas community colleges. Cost was a major reason; she estimates she saved $5,000 to $6,000 by starting at a two-year institution instead of UTA.
“It was a lot easier to go to a community college and not have to use financial aid until you get to a four-year university,” she said. “I took all my basics there and saved some money.”
The study found that average tuition at Texas’ two-year colleges increased 29 percent during the past decade and was the fifth-lowest in the country.
State officials say they’re aware of the need to keep costs under control.
When the coordinating board put together its strategic plan last year, its No. 1 stated goal was to bring more students from more diverse backgrounds into higher education.
“Colleges and universities can attract students who historically have not believed that higher education is within their reach by making certain that higher education is affordable through financial aid,” the plan said.
State funding for higher education in Texas has increased by 19 percent over the last decade, the study said. State financial aid has also increased. But the increases haven’t been large enough to counteract the 63 percent increase in tuition.
Three states had bigger tuition increases than Texas: Hawaii (79 percent), Arkansas (77 percent) and Idaho (63 percent).
For students such as Ms. Page, the stories of times gone by will be sweeter than just about anything state officials can do to cut tuition now.
“I’ve talked to a couple of older friends of mine about how cheap it was to go to college back then,” she said. “That would just be awesome. You’d want to go to school all year round, because you’re not paying as much. You wouldn’t need a part-time job or to take the summer off from school to earn money. You could just go to school.”