In a nod to one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s top priorities, the Texas Senate voted Tuesday to freeze tuition at public universities for two years — and then place strict limitations on increases after that.

But the idea still faces an uncertain future. The proposal will now head to the House, where leadership is much more skeptical of tuition caps. 

Senate Bill 19 was approved 29-2 with little discussion. It would ban schools from hiking costs for the two years after the 2017-18 school year. After that, schools would be limited to increases of 1 percent, plus the rate of inflation. And those increases would only be allowed if schools met a series of performance metrics set by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

SB 19's author, Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, has been pushing for a “performance-based tuition” bill since 2015, when the idea passed the Senate but died in the House. The thinking behind it is that schools should have to show improvements in graduation rates and reductions in administrative costs before they change their prices.  

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Senate Bill 19 merges that proposal with a tuition freeze. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have supported such a freeze, saying it was a mistake by the Legislature to cede control of tuition costs to colleges in 2003. Since then, tuition costs have increased by more than 140 percent.

The bill as currently written will likely generate strong pushback from universities’ supporters, who are already alarmed by dramatic cuts to their schools in the proposed Senate budget. Each school now faces a reduction in state funding of between 6 percent and 10 percent. A tuition freeze would limit the schools’ ability to make up for those losses.

“SB 19 could be a good idea, but it does not require the state to increase or even maintain its own investments in higher education,” said Garrett Groves, director of the Economic Opportunity Program at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Meanwhile, Seliger himself questioned whether an increase capped at 1 percent would even make it worth it for schools to chase the goals set out in the bill.   

Worries about state funding for higher education are widespread this legislative session. Hours before the Senate voted on Senate Bill 19, the members of the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education spoke out about the situation for the first time in the group’s six-year history. The group of prominent business leaders and philanthropists formed in 2011 in response to governance changes at top state schools proposed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

“Higher education transforms lives for the better; fuels medical, technology and intellectual discoveries; and prepares present and future generations to lead, invent, create, teach and hire,” the group said. “We cannot shortchange our state’s future by underfunding education.”

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Seliger, who is chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and serves on the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged those worries on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“I am determined to do everything we can to keep those universities whole,” he said.

He also said Tuesday that he thinks more money for universities will be added into the state’s budget.

The House’s version of the budget calls for more funding. And Senate Bill 19 could face a hard time in the lower chamber. House leadership has expressed support in recent months for Seliger’s performance based tuition ideas. They have been far more skeptical of tuition freezes.

Last month, House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican, said tuition in Texas seems to be a “pretty good bargain.” Students are applying to schools in record numbers, he noted.

“The supply and demand seems to be working,” he said.

And on a stage next to Seliger at a Texas Tribune event earlier Tuesday, House Higher Education Chairman J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, said he would have to see the contents of any proposed tuition cap before he took a stance. When pressed, however, he said that — “on its face” he would not be for a cap.

House support for another Patrick higher education priority approved Tuesday is also unclear. By a party-line 20-11 vote, Senators approved Senate Bill 18, which would eliminate a rule that requires schools to set 15 percent of money raised from tuition increases for financial aid.

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Democrats said they were worried that the change would mean less help for poor students. Seliger disputed that notion, however, saying most schools have already said that they don't plan to direct fewer dollars toward financial aid.

Over the objections of some Republicans, he added an amendment to the bill that would create a new $30 million state grant program available to students who attend schools that reduce their tuition by 5 percent.

The Senate is expected to give final approval of the bill on Wednesday before sending it to the House.

Read more of our related coverage:

  • The top three sources of revenue for Texas public universities are all being targeted for reductions or freezes by federal or state government leaders. 
  • Last month, the Senate Higher Education Committee considered several bills related to limiting tuition increases.

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