Students say ‘whew’ to tuition hike bill; Senate panel scales back boost from 200% to 22% over 2 years

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas has perhaps never seen so many college students happy about having their tuition raised.

“I’m excited,” said Chris Featherstone, student body president at the University of Texas at Arlington. “I see it as a victory.”

He was referring to the Senate education committee’s vote Tuesday to allow universities to raise tuition by more than 22 percent over the next two years. Before scaling back the increases, the committee had been considering allowing a 200 percent increase.

“Doubling or tripling the bill would have made college accessible to only the very rich, who could afford it, or the very poor who could get financial aid,” said Paul Tran, a senior at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I’m glad they completely changed the bill.”

Facing severe funding cuts because of the state’s budget crisis, Texas universities have asked for more freedom to set their tuition rates. For decades, the Legislature has set those rates.

The bill that the Senate committee originally considered would have given each university system’s board of regents the power to set tuition, as long as it did not exceed triple what they now charge.

“We know there will be substantial cuts for higher education,” said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, the committee’s chairwoman. “But at the same time, we didn’t want to just give them carte blanche to charge however much they wanted.”

The bill would increase the state’s mandated tuition from $44 per semester hour to $46 this fall. It would then jump to $52 for the spring 2004 semester, and to $54 in spring 2005.

Tuition had previously been scheduled to go up $2 per year. Universities are also allowed to charge students an additional “designated tuition” that can equal the state’s mandated tuition.

For students taking a standard 15-hour course load, the changes would increase annual tuition up to $600 by 2005.

Several university leaders said the increases, while a step in the right direction, were not sufficient to meet their needs. Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, said legislative cuts mean UNT would likely have to raise tuition immediately by $20 per credit hour just to avoid cutting back services.

“This money isn’t needed to pay for niceties or extras on many campuses – it’s for necessary services,” he said.

“I’ll be very disappointed if this is the final result,” said Woody Hunt, a regent in the University of Texas System. “With the state’s current fiscal crisis, we have to have the ability to seek alternate sources of income to make up for reduced state funding.”

But students were happy that the largest possible increases appear to have been avoided.

“We spoke up, and maybe we were heard,” said Jeremy Brown, Texas Tech’s student body president-elect, who led almost 30 students to Austin this month to lobby against the bill.

The approved bill also calls for a study of higher education finance, so that the Legislature can consider more systemic changes in the 2005 legislative session.

There is still a chance for more substantial tuition deregulation in the current session. A bill in the House higher education committee would give regents free rein in setting tuition rates, although it would also require substantial levels of financial aid.

Perhaps most important to universities will be the outcome of continued budget negotiations. Various proposals have called for higher education funding to be cut between 3.5 and 15 percent.

“Until we know what that final number is, it’s hard to know how bad things are going to be,” said Bob Wright, a spokesman for the Texas A&M University System.