The University of Texas System is an extraordinary institution. It educates more than 200,000 students, mostly from Texas, and it conducts an enormous amount of groundbreaking research. The cumulative impact of the education of young people and the research output of the thousands of brilliant faculty is prodigious and valuable. I could not be prouder of the University of Texas diploma on my wall, representing as it does not only knowledge and thinking skills gained but also the symbol of the four joyous and challenging years I spent growing as a person and learning about myself and others. What a gift the founders of Texas gave our state in establishing “a University of the first class.” It is a special privilege for me to serve on my university system's board of regents (although the views expressed here are mine personally and not necessarily those of other board members).
Over the 35 years since I graduated, many measures of the quality of UT-Austin have grown dramatically. But tuition has also increased — by more than 80 percent over just the past eight years. I am forever grateful to the university and to the state of Texas for giving me the opportunity to be able to pay my own way through school and graduate almost debt free. Today’s students are not typically so lucky.
It is fashionable to blame higher tuition on legislative tight-fistedness, but the facts simply do not support that charge. Nationally, state support for higher education has roughly kept pace with general inflation over the past 20 years. Some pushing for higher student tuition tend to point out that state support of higher education has dropped substantially as a share of total revenues. That is true, but only because educational costs have increased much faster than inflation and federally funded research budgets have grown substantially, making state support naturally account for a much smaller portion of the entire budget.
At UT-Austin, generous philanthropists and state-granted lands have endowed the university with extraordinary additional pillars of support that other institutions could only dream about. Even intercollegiate athletics, often a loss-maker, provide meaningful support for academic programs. Finally, a little-noticed change in the admissions practice at UT-Austin is shifting many slots previously allocated to Texas residents, who pay $10,000 per year, to nonresidents, who pay $33,000 per year.
During the past 10 years, after inflation, investment income and university funds available for operations (i.e., over and above capital expenditures) have grown by $2,100 per student. State support has dropped by only $1,300 per student, partly due to nonresident students not being subsidized by the state. Roughly two-thirds of state funding cuts are either tied to or offset by increased nonresident tuition. The $3,300-per-year tuition increase families are already paying is simply not justified by reductions in state support — and nor is possibility of further increases.
The public is told by some that holding the line on tuition will imperil much-needed student programs, hold back research or result in a "dumbing down" of the university. The actual data demonstrate that this is a fundamentally misleading position. Instructional revenues are going up, even without tuition increases. State funding cuts are frequently cited by those asking for more money from students — despite the negative consequences of even higher tuition on student access. Yes, there are plenty of students willing to pay the tuition at UT even if it increased further. But is that what the founders of Texas had in mind for their “University of the first class”? The Texas Constitution does not famously promise its citizens a “University of the upper class.”
We can earn financial support from other parts of society than students facing an uncertain job market. We can enhance learning productivity, better reward our faculty and have an even bigger positive influence on the world by harnessing technology even more innovatively than we do now. We do not need to increase tuition.
It is a competitive world. I love the University of Texas too much to see others take the lead. I expect the Texas Legislature, the University of Texas System and our many dedicated, inspired faculty, staff and administrators will continue to work together to find ways actually to cut students’ outlay and increase quality of learning so that UT students may be even more blessed by the UT opportunity than I have been.
Alex Cranberg sits on the University of Texas System Board of Regents.