Thursday, January 29, 2009

Legislators set to tackle bills on higher ed

By Jeannie Kever - Express-News

HOUSTON — Tuition. Textbooks. Financial aid.

Mention college, and most people focus on the price tag.

“It is nuts to make the cost of college so high that working-class kids can't go unless they take out large loans,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat.

So expect lots of debate about freezing tuition when the Legislature convenes in mid-January.

But with dozens of bills dealing with higher education already filed, it won't be the only topic under consideration. Other measures look to expand financial aid, cut the cost of textbooks, make schools more accountable and help veterans attend college.

At the University of Houston, administrators will be watching legislation to increase the number of nationally ranked research universities, an elite group the school seeks to join.

Renu Khator, UH chancellor and president of its central campus, said she will travel to Austin often during the coming months to support the cause.

“Texas has such a huge need” for additional top-ranked schools, she said. “That is how we're going to be able to keep Texas at the cutting edge.”

Legislators often pay lip service to higher education, but several say this year may be the tipping point, sparked by a middle-class outcry over tuition rates, national reports blasting lack of affordability and access, and a growing acknowledgment that Texas needs more and better universities to serve its growing population.

One bill already filed would freeze tuition at public universities for two years. Another would limit tuition and fee increases to 5 percent a year.

All sound good to cash-strapped families, who saw tuition at Texas' public, four-year schools rise an average of 53 percent in the first four years after legislators allowed them to set their own rates.

But changing the status quo may not be so simple.

Legislators deregulated tuition in 2003 in exchange for cutting state higher education funding during a budget crisis. Public universities rely on a mix of state funding and money from tuition and fees for their operating costs, along with money from endowments, donations and other sources.

State spending has increased since 2003 but hasn't kept up with enrollment growth and inflation.

“It's easy to say, ‘Freeze tuition,'” said Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee. “I don't think it would be fair to freeze tuition without raising state funding.”

Welcome Wilson Sr., chairman of the UH board of regents, said he'd love to not raise tuition. “In order to do that,” he said, “we need (state) funding at the same level as this year, plus the inflation rate for higher education.”

Wilson's main priority, however, is additional money to help UH move into the ranks of nationally recognized schools.

UH is one of seven so-called emerging research universities that are candidates to join the state's three Tier 1 schools, known as nationally competitive institutions: the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University, which is private. (California, by comparison, has nine Tier 1 universities; New York has seven.)

State lawmakers don't decide which schools have that status. The designation is based upon such factors as how much research money a school receives and the caliber of its students and faculty. But state money will be required to help any of the contenders meet those benchmarks.

That will cost millions of dollars over a number of years. Still, many legislators say they expect something to be done this year.

“I certainly hope so,” said Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Select Committee on Higher and Public Education Finance. “I think the future of the state hangs in the balance.”

More Tier 1 schools also could help with another issue: How to ease enrollment pressure at UT-Austin caused by a law allowing any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class to attend any public university in the state. Those students accounted for 81 percent of this year's freshman class at the Austin campus. (Top 10 percent graduates made up 46 percent of A&M's freshman class and about 18 percent of the freshmen at UH.)

Top high school graduates often want to attend a Tier 1 school, Zaffirini noted. With just two public options in Texas, thousands of the state's most promising students go elsewhere for college. Branch and state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, have introduced legislation to limit the number of top 10 percent graduates guaranteed admission to the college of their choice.

More Tier 1 schools could be a longer-term solution. In addition to UH, the most likely contenders include Texas Tech University, the University of North Texas, UT-Dallas, UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio and UT-El Paso.

Past efforts in the Legislature to designate one or more schools as worthy of additional state money haven't worked, because lawmakers from one part of the state didn't want to support a school in another region. No one is talking about that this time.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has called for a commission to determine how the state should proceed. Zaffirini said she still is drafting legislation on the subject, aiming for a bill supported by the presidents of all seven contenders.

Branch's bill would allow schools to compete for funding, which could be used for such things as hiring faculty, upgrading facilities and increasing financial aid.

That's similar to the approach proposed by Khator and David Daniel, president of UT-Dallas, who have suggested the state match money raised by the universities.

That way, Khator said, all seven schools can compete: “Any way the Legislature can reward us for our performance, whether it's private fundraising, research grants or meeting our goals for student learning, I support it.”

Zaffirini also supports allowing all schools to aim higher, although she noted that reaching Tier 1 will take longer for some. “UTSA might take a longer time, 15 or 20 years,” she said. “It is still a worthy goal. UH might be in a better position to reach that status earlier.”

State Comptroller Susan Combs won't release the state's projected revenues until Jan. 12, the day before the Legislature convenes. Regardless of how much money is available, Zaffirini said she hopes legislators will agree on a process to help elevate the emerging research universities.

“We want to create a pathway, even if we don't have funding at this point,” she said.

Texas universities are unlikely to face the dire prospects of their counterparts in some other states, which already have cut higher education funding. Public universities in California and Florida, for example, have announced limits on enrollment, pushing students into community colleges or out of higher education altogether.

But Texas isn't immune to financial worries.

“We have to be very cautious in our spending,” Whitmire said. “Higher ed's got to compete with the highway department. Our social services are underfunded, particularly mental health. If you don't fund mental health at the proper levels, people end up in the criminal justice system.

“We've got our work cut out for us.”

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