If There's a Way, There's a Will to Regulate Tuition

Academic Shift

The 2013 legislative session will mark the 10th anniversary of a decision by Texas lawmakers to deregulate college tuition, giving the authority to set tuition at public universities to the institutions.

Since deregulation, the average total of tuition and fees at the state’s public universities has increased by 90 percent, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Some lawmakers are hoping the upcoming session provides an opportunity to regain control of the price-setting process.

“It’s past time for the Legislature to stop abdicating its responsibility and instead make some tough decisions on tuition,” said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. He was in the minority when he voted against deregulation in 2003, but he believes the tide may be turning.

Of the 181 members of the state’s 83rd Legislature, more than 50 have voted at least once to advance efforts to end tuition deregulation, while fewer than 20 have consistently voted to uphold it. Many have never voted on the issue, and more than 40 members are freshmen.

“With the number of fresh faces in both houses this upcoming session, I think enough members are willing to explore new ideas on how to keep the cost of higher education affordable for Texas families,” Ellis said.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called his approval of tuition deregulation “one of the two worst votes I ever cast in my legislative career.”

Talk of ending deregulation is certain to meet resistance from universities, and not all lawmakers feel it should happen.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, until recently the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, reluctantly voted for deregulation in 2003. “It was the right thing to do at the time,” she said.

Zaffirini said that the tuition issue should be considered in relation to state financial support for higher education institutions and financial aid. Neither is expected to increase in the 2013 session, and tuition increases help universities make up for that in their budgets.

Rising tuition has also been on Gov. Rick Perry’s mind. His higher-education initiatives heading into the session include locking a student’s tuition in at a flat rate for four years and instituting degrees that cost $10,000.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry, said he still supports deregulation but hopes it is not a rubber stamp to arbitrarily increase tuition every year.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said that legislators have encouraged universities over the years to keep tuition increases manageable.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who replaced Zaffirini as the Senate Higher Education Committee chairman, is open to discussing tuition.

“One question that has got to be asked is: What should tuition be?” he said, adding that he would prefer universities to come up with a satisfactory answer without legislators stepping in.

But some lawmakers are already at that point.

“Ever since it passed and we saw those first tuition increases, I’ve been trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” Williams said. “We haven’t been able to turn it around, but maybe this will be the session.”

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