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Texplainer: Will Budget Cuts Mean Higher University Tuition?

In the wake of well-documented budget woes, the state Legislature took a more than 9 percent chunk out of higher education in the recent session. Some institutions have now raised tuition, and others may soon do the same.

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Hey, Texplainer: If budgets are being cut, how much will tuition be going up at Texas universities?

In the wake of well-documented budget woes, the state Legislature took a more than 9 percent chunk out of higher education funding for public universities and colleges in the recent session.

In June, shortly after the budget decisions were made at the Capitol, the Texas Tech University System Board of Regents called a special meeting in Dallas. It approved a 5.9 percent increase in tuition and fees for Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and a 9.9 percent increase for Angelo State University in San Angelo.

“The increase in tuition and fees will enable us to offset a portion of the deficit we’ve incurred due to state budget cuts,” said Texas Tech president Guy Bailey. The increase is expected to generate approximately $8.6 million for his university, which saw a $29.1 million cut over the next biennium.

The tuition hike has drawn significant criticism from both sides of the political divide. The Tech chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas issued a press release asserting that the regents had “decided to avoid the key issue of balancing the budget by cutting frivolous spending and instead, took the easy way out by passing the burden on to students, as it consistently seems to do.”

Meanwhile, state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, placed the blame on legislators. “By slashing state support for higher education, those in control of the legislature pushed these universities to raise tuition and close the door to higher education for many hard-working students,” he said in a statement.

Of course, the Texas Tech University System is not the only group to make such a move. Earlier in the month, the University of Houston System approved a 3.95 percent increase for each of its four institutions. The UH System Board of Regents Chairwoman Carroll Ray said it was a last resort. “We understand the financial burden many of our students face, however, the UH System could not absorb the cut in state funding we currently face on our own,” she said.

The University of North Texas System regents approved tuition hikes back in March. The 2.8 percent increase at the University of North Texas will mean $101.25 more in tuition and fees for students taking 15 hours this fall and $117.75 in the spring. Unlike some of his peers, UNT President V. Lane Rawlins said the increase was not intended to make up for state budget cuts, but rather to bolster its efforts toward becoming a tier-one research university.

Amid the fireworks of its May meeting, which featured the final speech of an outgoing chancellor and a fiery protest from faculty, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted to keep most tuition rates level. However, there were exceptions for specific programs, including three colleges — engineering, veterinary medicine and architecture — at the flagship campus in College Station, as well as some increases at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

How other systems respond to financial issues remains to be seen. Aug. 4 is the deadline for universities to submit requests to the Texas State University System Board of Regents before their mid-August meeting. Mike Wintemute, a spokesman for the system, said he could not predict what would happen, though he said, “Our institutions are facing many of the same pressures that many institutions are facing in the state, primarily significant enrollment increases and reduced state funding.”

The University of Texas System addresses tuition for its undergraduate institutions every two years and won’t revisit the issue until the spring 2012, although it did impose an increase on its health institutions earlier this year.

House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, has been keeping close watch over the situation. In 2009, he passed a resolution out of the House that encouraged universities to raise tuition no more than 3.95 percent or $280 from year to year until 2013. It didn’t make it through the Senate, but the message was clear. And, Branch said, it appears to have been received.

In percentage terms, there haven’t been any double-digit hikes since 2009, and only a few schools have gone beyond Branch’s parameters (For example, Texas Tech's increase may have exceeded 3.95 percent, but it only translated to $252. Angelo State's 9.9 percent boost, meanwhile, amounted to $331, exceeding both guidelines). Overall, the trend has been toward modest increases, Branch said, adding, “And we were well below the national average in increases.”

He said he hopes that universities and regents got the message from the 2011 session as well. “One of the loud headlines from this session was that you’re going to have to do more with less,” he told the Tribune. “We've got to live within our means. You can’t just pass on dramatic tuition increases to families or students.”

Bottom line: As schools deal with increasing enrollment and decreasing state funding, it's a safe bet, but not certain, that tuition might rise, even if only modestly. The actual amount is decided on a university-by-university basis by boards of regents.

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