Ever since I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I have fought to keep tuition costs for the flagship campus affordable to all seeking the same invaluable education that I received. For almost 25 years, I have devoted my time to enhancing philanthropic support for UT-Austin. I have served on the Development Board, the Chancellor’s Council and the Longhorn Foundation, to name a few. All of these organizations raise funds for the university, helping provide needed resources to increase access, improve opportunities and heighten the level of excellence across the board.
At a time when state funding for higher education has plummeted to record lows, philanthropy of all kinds — whether it be endowments, estate gifts, scholarships, art, real estate or other cash or in-kind gifts — has an increasingly significant impact on being able to deliver quality education to Texas students. But it’s not realistic or sufficient to maintain a world-class university over the long term.
In 1985, state funding accounted for 47 percent of UT-Austin's annual operating budget. Today, state funds account for 13 percent of the budget. During the same period, gifts and endowments have risen from 3 percent to 9 percent of the budget — an important increase but not nearly enough to make up for the gap left from a lack of state funding.
In order for our tier-one institution to attract world-class faculty, students and researchers, we must have an appropriate funding mix that includes tuition, philanthropy and state funding so that we can sustain the mission of the university without unnecessarily burdening one group.
In a data-driven and carefully considered request for an increase in tuition this spring, UT-Austin identified a need for funding essential programs aimed at improving student success. Every dollar of the requested increase was focused on increasing graduation rates, through the course transformation program and changes in undergraduate advising, among other approaches. One of the most important ways we can reduce the tuition burden on students and their families is by helping them graduate sooner, thereby reducing overall student obligations. But instead, the decision was made to freeze tuition.
Declining state support is forcing our flagship institutions to make increasingly difficult choices that hinder their ability to attract and keep the very best faculty and student talent. As the chairman of the Faculty Council, Alan Friedman, said when the tuition freeze was announced in May, it “makes it harder to recruit, retain and properly reward top faculty. … It feels like an assault on the very notion of being a first-class institution.”
UT-Austin has soldiered on, like many of our state entities that have to “do more with less.” And, increasingly, what the university has done has been tremendous. In fact, the recent Academic Ranking of World Universities placed UT-Austin 35th among its global peers. Yet we cannot continue to underfund our institutions and hope for the best. UT-Austin is a public treasure in which the people of Texas have invested for generations and from which they derive tremendous benefit.
No one ever wants to raise tuition. It’s never a popular thing to do, particularly during a time of economic duress. But sometimes doing what is right isn’t always popular. The decision to request an increase in tuition is not made lightly, but is made out of the necessity to protect the value of a priceless product.
The people of Texas deserve the best. I pledge to continue to give — and ask others to do the same — but philanthropic giving follows excellence. The institutions within our university systems are public treasures. If we continue to starve our flagship institutions, we are damaging one of our greatest public resources, limiting our state’s ability to attract the brightest minds and millions in R&D and shortchanging Texas’ future.
Melinda Hill Perrin is a former chairwoman of UT-Austin's Development Board.