Bills address tuition rates; State’s universities would get greater leeway to charge more

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 31A

Universities would get new power to raise tuition rates under two bills filed Friday in the Legislature.

The measures take different approaches in setting tuition, which for decades has primarily been the Legislature’s job.

Backers say the changes are important at a time when budget cuts mean there will be less state money available to higher education. Critics say students can’t afford to pay more.

The first proposal, by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, would allow schools to triple the amount they charge in “designated tuition,” one of the many elements of a university’s structure of tuition and fees. Currently, the Legislature allows universities to charge as much as $44 per credit hour each semester in designated tuition. That figure increases by $2 each year.

Under the Shapiro bill, a full-time student taking a typical course load could theoretically see a tuition increase of $2,820 a year. But Ms. Shapiro said no university would risk “pricing themselves out of the market” with such a large increase.

“It’s a work in progress,” she said. “It’s a simple solution that can meet their needs quickly.”

A second bill, by Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, would give universities complete freedom in setting tuition for all students.

The one exception: For in-state undergraduates, colleges would be required to reduce tuition on a student-by-student basis if it exceeds 5 percent of a student’s annual family income.

For example, if a student’s family income were $60,000, he or she would be expected to pay no more than $3,000, or 5 percent of that income, each year. If the university set tuition at $7,000 a year, the university would have to make up the $4,000 difference with grants and financial aid.

“Our institutions need to have this flexibility,” Ms. Morrison said.

The two bills were filed hours before the session’s final deadline for new legislation. Ms. Morrison chairs the House higher education committee; Ms. Shapiro chairs the Senate education committee.

University leaders have been asking for this sort of tuition deregulation for years. But this year’s budget crunch will mean cuts for higher education. That makes deregulation attractive, legislators say, because it means universities can raise more money to make up for lost state revenue.

Ms. Shapiro said her bill had support from all six of the state’s university systems, which include the University of Texas, Texas A&M and University of North Texas systems.