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TEXAS grants

Some Republicans embrace tuition re-regulation

This is a welcome change, but let’s not be distracted by what isn’t being said.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

Tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities would be capped at their current levels and only be permitted to grow at the rate of inflation under a bill filed Tuesday by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

Schwertner telegraphed his filing of Senate Bill 233 for the 2015 legislative session in a Sunday column in TribTalk. In the column, he argued that because state lawmakers started allowing university governing boards to set tuition rates without legislative oversight in 2003, “the dream of attaining a college degree is becoming a nightmare for more and more Texas students.”

Average tuition and fees in the state have more than doubled since tuition was deregulated and, as Schwertner noted in a news release announcing his filings, that growth has significantly outpaced the rate of inflation.

“I think the Legislature has a responsibility to consider whether the deregulation policies enacted over a decade ago still make sense for Texas students,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Here’s that press release from Sen. Schwertner referenced in the story. I’m glad to see some Republican acknowledgment of this problem, but if you read Schwertner’s TribTalk piece and you’re old enough to remember the year 2003, you will note what is prominently missing from his words: The fact that tuition deregulation was passed by Republicans at that time as a way to deal with a budget shortfall by allowing the public universities to set their own tuition rates in return for getting less funding from the state. If Schwertner and Greg Abbott are truly serious about this, they will acknowledge that simply capping tuition without making up the reduction in state funding for public higher education will cause other problems and is just shirking responsibility altogether for those problems. This is a good start, and kudos to Schwertner for being the point person for it, but it’s only part of the puzzle.

Democrats, at least the ones that weren’t in then-Speaker Tom Craddick’s pocket in 2003, opposed tuition deregulation and have fought to repeal it since then for precisely the reasons laid out by Schwertner, with the crucial difference being that they support the state paying its fair share. A Legislative Study Group report on higher education that I linked to in 2008 but which is unfortunately not at that URL any more covers a lot of this ground. Note the line about California having ten tier one universities that Abbott alluded to the other day. That LSG report also included an op-ed by Rep. Garnet Coleman from 2004, in which he correctly predicted everything that’s now finally being acknowledged today. Here’s an excerpt:

Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Tom Craddick exerted unyielding political pressure to compel the tuition deregulation bill’s passage, using Texas’ $10 billion budget shortfall as the rationale. While top state officials were patting themselves on the back for not raising taxes, they were saddling Texas college students and their families with staggering hikes in tuition rates.

Perry claimed in his State of the State address that education represents the greatest investment we can make in a future of prosperity. He then agreed to slash general revenue funding for higher education by $259 million, which includes his veto of $55 million for excellence in research funds. Yet, the governor simultaneously fought for and received $295 million for a new, unproven economic development fund that allows him to hand out financial incentives to businesses he is attempting to lure to Texas.

[…]

Knowing that it would further strain the ability of many students to pursue a college education, our short-sighted leaders forged ahead with their plan to deregulate tuition. Students holding jobs to pay for their college education will be required to work longer hours or take out additional student loans to cover the costs of unchecked tuition increases.

For example, tuition rates are set to rise by an average of approximately 12 percent this spring at the University of Texas System’s institutions. A student taking a 15-hour course load at the system’s flagship institution, the University of Texas at Austin, faces an even greater increase of 26 percent. By fall, the same student will pay 52 percent more for tuition than he did the previous year.

One major flaw of tuition deregulation is its affect on older students. Proponents of this policy failed to consider the fact that not every Texas university is a flagship and not evey student is a fresh-faced recent high school graduate. At the University of Houston at Victoria, for instance, the average attendee is 33. Increased costs are especially devastating to these nontraditional students who already have jobs, families and other responsibilities. Many cannot afford the extra burden.

Tuition deregulation also has serious consequences for two popular state programs, the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan and the Texas Grants Program. Parents and grandparents who were planning on securing a college education for their children and grandchildren by locking in tuition rates through the Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan (formerly the Texas Tomorrow Fund) will no longer have that opportunity. Recent tuition spikes and uncertainty about future tuition costs have forced that program to close its doors to new enrollees.

Additionally, fewer Texas students will receive grants from the state to offset tuition costs. Without even taking into account the impact of deregulating tuition, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board already projects a 12 percent decline in Texas Grants recipients by 2005. Tuition hikes across the state will further diminish the number of new recipients.

Again, that was written in 2004. As is so often the case, we should have listened to Rep. Coleman. It took a decade longer than it should have, but we would be well advised to listen to him now.

Murdock on the cuts to public education

Not too surprisingly, former state demographer Steve Murdock thinks that the looming cuts to public education are a long-term disaster for the state. He singled out pre-K and TEXAS grants as the top two items of concern.

“I am very concerned,” said Murdock, a sociology professor at Rice University and the former state demographer who also served as U.S. Census Bureau director in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s not like we have a lot of slack in the system where we can slip a little bit and still be OK.”

Minority children now make up at least 66 percent of the state’s 4.8 million public school enrollment, most from low-income families. In the last 10 years, the number of children from low-income families has increased by 893,055, surpassing overall enrollment growth during the same period.

Education is the single best predictor of income, Murdock says, and the combination of explosive Hispanic population growth and low academic achievement produces the sour forecast.

“We are lagging now and to fail to educate this population is a formula for long-term disaster for Texas,” Murdock said. “The thing that is most important for us to recognize is that what we do today with these young people will determine the future for all of us.”

Murdock has been sounding this alarm for a long time now, so while hearing him say all this is always welcome and necessary, it’s not a surprise. What is a bit of a surprise is this:

House Public Education Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said he cannot defend the proposed cuts in Pre-K and TEXAS grant funding.

“We have some serious, serious decisions to make,” Eissler said. “If you predict the future based on today, it’s not bright.”

Eissler’s early words on education cuts, made before the official announcement of how deep the hole is, were less than reassuring. This is the first time I’ve noticed him push back in some way on the Pitts/Ogden budgets, and it’s encouraging to see. He’s not made a commitment to any particular course of action, so it’s still possible he could go along with what is now being proposed, but at least he’s saying the right things.

Cutting TEXAS grants

Paying for college keeps getting harder for a lot of people in Texas.

Each year since 2003, the TEXAS grant program has had more applicants than it’s been able to help.

In 2009, lawmakers added $110 million to the program. But with an anticipated shortfall of up to $18 billion in the next two-year budget, total university financial aid could be up for as much as $108 million in cuts.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, author of the legislation that created the TEXAS grant, said such cuts could turn back the clock on the gains the state has made over the past several years.

Under the proposed cuts, two out of every three eligible students who applied would not get the TEXAS grants. During the 2011-12 academic year, 56,000 community college and university students are expected to apply, and there would only be enough money for 18,700.

Most of the money will have to be devoted to maintaining help for students who have already been awarded two- or four-year grants.

“In our struggling economy, the last thing we need to be doing is setting up roadblocks for those seeking to obtain a postsecondary education,” said Ellis, D-Houston.

State Rep. Dan Branch, who chairs the House Higher Education subcommittee, said there are reasons to feel optimistic because of the Legislature’s demonstrated priority for financial aid.

“Ultimately, it’s not only an investment in human capital, it’s an economic development,” said Branch, R-Dallas. “The opportunity to break out and make a higher income ultimately brings in tax revenue.”

He said, however, that in the middle of a tough budget cycle, it’s hard to make promises or think of adding more monies to the program. Lawmakers have said they may limit scholarships to students with better academic records to save money during the upcoming session.

You can talk all you want about how good an investment this is, but if keeping Dan Patrick’s taxes low is a higher priority, then it’s all just talk. We could properly fund the TEXAS grants program, and many other programs, if we wanted to. Budget shortfall or not, we do what we choose to do. Part of the issue with the TEXAS grants is the same as the problem with the Texas Tomorrow Fund, which is that the decision made by the Lege and the Republican leadership in 2003 to deregulate tuition has made college that much more expensive. Whatever we decide to do next year, we’ll be feeling the effects long after that.