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Texas Senate leaders propose tuition freeze, elimination of financial aid program

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, unveiled legislation Thursday that they said aims to lower costs for college students.

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With the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the top state senator on higher education issues unveiled a pair of bills Thursday that would freeze university tuition for four years and eliminate a state law that provides tuition assistance to low-income students. 

Both bills have been hailed as top priorities by Patrick, who has raised alarm about rising college costs in the state. The tuition assistance program requires colleges to set aside some of the tuition that public universities collect so that money can go toward scholarships for low-income students. Patrick has called those "set-asides" a hidden tax that raises tuition bills for other students. 

The bills were filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. 

Patrick has had set-asides and tuition in his sights for years. In April, he held a fiery news conference to scold universities for raising tuition in recent years. Since universities won the right to set their own tuition in 2003, average tuition and fees have climbed 148 percent, or a bit over 80 percent when accounting for inflation. 

"Making college more affordable for all Texans continues to be one of my top priorities this Legislative Session," Patrick said in a statement. “I commend Sen. Seliger for filing these two bills that will help bring economic relief to students who pursue higher education.”

In his own statement, Seliger said: "The focus should be on how to make higher education more accessible and affordable, rather than how to get the state, and students, to pay more."

Both measures will probably face challenges inside and outside the Capitol. Democrats in particular will try to fight the bill aiming to eliminate set-asides. Some school officials have said the program is important to making higher education affordable to low-income students. Patrick has argued that the state should fund those scholarships, not other students. 

Meanwhile, university leaders have argued that one of the main reasons they have raised tuition in recent years is that per-student funding for higher education has fallen.

Given their powerful backing, both bills seem to be in a good position to pass the Senate. The challenge for supporters will be getting them through the House.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune last week, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who was chairman of the House Higher Education Committee last year, expressed skepticism about the ideas.

“I definitely am not one of the people who thinks we need to re-regulate tuition and fees,” he said.

On the idea of eliminating set-asides, he said, “I am not there on that.”

But Zerwas is a strong supporter of a third bill that Seliger filed Thursday. That legislation, Senate Bill 543, would require schools to meet certain performance-based metrics before they were allowed to raise tuition.

Those metrics would include graduation rates, degrees awarded to at-risk students and administrative costs. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would determine the specific targets that each school would have to hit.

Seliger authored a similar bill in 2015 that passed the Senate but died in the House.

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Higher education State government 85th Legislative Session Dan Patrick Texas Legislature