In early March, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick harshly scolded the University of Texas Board of Regents for voting to raise tuition for the first time in several years. At the time, he pledged that the exponentially rising cost of tuition at Texas’ public universities was unacceptable and that the Texas Senate would act. Now, as interim hearings of the Higher Education Committee begin, Patrick is making good on his promise.
In a press conference with Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) last week, Patrick cited egregious spending on public university personnel and programs. On the top of his list of reforms are two items conservatives have been eyeing for years—tuition set asides and re-regulating tuition.
Under Texas state law, 20% of the tuition paid by every student is “set aside” and used to provide need based financial aid to other students through various programs. In other words, universities take from affluent students by intentionally overcharging them by 20% or more, and then redistribute the money to other students from less affluent backgrounds.
Ever since the law was implemented in 2003 it has been a major target for repeal by the Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT).
“What tuition set asides truly amount to are blatant redistribution of wealth. It’s classic socialism,” said Zach Maxwell, a YCT board member. “At a time when college is becoming more and more expensive for everyday Texans, we shouldn’t be trying to make it more ‘affordable’ by taking from all and giving to a select few.”
Patrick agrees. Citing his record of fighting against the program during his time in the Texas Senate, Patrick argued that set asides amount to “nothing more than a hidden tax on every student and every family when 20% of what they pay goes to another student.”
In the same year that the Texas Legislature implemented tuition set asides, they also gave the power to raise university tuition to each institution’s Board of Regents. The move yielded mixed results for each institution.
For example, at Texas A&M, tuition increases were successfully defeated by student leaders and sympathetic regents. Meanwhile, at the University of Texas, higher education bureaucrats were successful in implementing sharp increases. Most egregious was the University of Texas at Dallas which increased tuition 55% over ten years to become the most expensive public university in the state.
In 2013, the legislature attempted to address the issue by passing HB 29, which fixed tuition for each incoming student for four years. While taming harsh increases such as those at UTD, the move had the result of increasing the cost of attendance for students at Texas A&M where the Board of Regents approved an increase for the first time in over four years.
Under Schwertner’s plan, tuition and fees at the state’s public colleges and universities would be capped at their current levels and only permitted to grow at the rate of inflation as determined by the Legislative Budget Board. The plan also institutes a requirement that any institution wishing to increase tuition beyond that rate must receive approval via majority vote by the student body.
While not explicitly endorsing Schwertner’s proposal, Patrick responded favorably to the plan when questioned by a reporter when he noted, “all options are on the table.”
Both moves should be areas of encouragement for students and conservatives, but they should also serve as a call to arms. Patrick’s support, while influential, must be augmented by strong and stubborn insistence by grassroots conservatives if the reforms are to become law.