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Senate Republican Leaders Express Concern Over Tuition Hikes

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger expressed frustration Friday with Texas university presidents over recent decisions to raise tuition again this year.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick discusses school choice and education public policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Orientation event on Jan. 7, 2016.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger told Texas university presidents Friday that it is "discouraging" that many of them are choosing to raise tuition this year, even after the Legislature increased higher education funding in 2015. 

In a letter the two Republican leaders released Friday, Patrick and Seliger also asked for detailed information about the history of tuition at the public universities, saying they planned to study the issue before the Legislature reconvenes in 2017. 

"The cost of higher education must remain at a level that is within reach of all Texans," they said in a letter. 

In the past six months, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M University System, among others, have decided to raise tuition at their member universities. At UT-Austin, per-semester costs will rise by $304 by 2017. At A&M, costs will go up by over $200 per semester by 2017. 

Officials at both universities said they needed to keep up with the cost of inflation, and noted that students at Texas' top universities will still pay less than students at most comparable schools elsewhere in the country. 

The Texas Legislature controlled tuition costs until 2003, when that authority was ceded to the universities' governing boards. Patrick has asked the Senate to study the effects of that deregulation and consider finding ways to reduce that costs. 

Universities are stringently opposed to the Legislature taking back control. They acknowledge that costs have gone up since 2003. But, they argue, they went up faster for most schools in the decade before the Legislature gave up control. 

Seliger and Patrick are asking to see the facts on issue for themselves. They have asked schools to provide their tuition rates since the 2002-03 school year, along with how annual mandatory fees have changed since then. They have also asked to see an overview of each university's plans to reduce student debt and lower costs. 

"Texans expect their elected representatives to protect their interests and to be stewards of public resources, including public universities," Seliger and Patrick wrote.

Reaction among students has been mixed. Last year at A&M, the student senate voted 42 to 0 to oppose a tuition increase. The author of the measure, Joseph Hood, then urged regents not to approve the change, saying at a meeting that the university should not “surrender to the national trend of increasing the burden of the cost of education to students.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the student government pushed for a larger increase.  Student Body President Ileana Gonzalez said students at her university supported a measure that would have increased their per-semester costs by $583 by 2017. Regents found that too expensive, and lowered the increase to $330. 

"We were definitely upset because we are trying to grow and the Board of Regents is not letting us," Gonzalez said in an interview this week. 

Attempts to restrict universities on tuition have popped up regularly since 2003. Most gained little traction. The one that came the closest last year was written by Seliger and sought to require universities to meet certain performance metrics before they increased costs. The bill passed the Senate, but never received a vote in the House. 

Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, author of another measure that sought to ban tuition increases higher than the rate of inflation, said Friday that he plans to try again in 2017. 

"These unchecked tuition increases threaten to price an entire generation of Texans out of higher education," Schwertner said. "We simply can't afford to keep ignoring this problem"

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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