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Texas: A Bargain No Longer

By Senator Rodney Ellis

For decades, Texas was known as a low-cost/low-aid state and that actually worked for the majority of students and families. Heck, we bragged about our low tuition rate. We didn't provide much in way of financial aid, but college was not exorbitantly expensive either, so families and students who made the right choices and lived responsibly could afford it.

That is no longer the case. Tuition in Texas has skyrocketed, mainly due to tuition deregulation, and is far outpacing investments in financial aid. Texas used to be one of the better higher education bargains in the country; now we are nearly as expensive as the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of just tuition and fees at a public 4-year Texas college is $6,350, placing Texas 27th in affordability. The national average cost is $6,810. If the current trend continues, Texas will soon be more expensive. The costs of community and two-year colleges in Texas already surpasses the national average, and are actually rising at an even faster rate.

Of course, many of the states with higher average tuition rates provide much more direct aid to students, defraying more of the burden and helping them afford the cost of going to college. Also, most of these states are not growing at the rate of Texas, and only Utah has a greater percentage of its population under 18. We're failing to invest the necessary resources to meet the needs of our current students, and will soon have millions more college-eligible kids in the pipeline.

So with these growing challenges, how are we going to ensure those students even have the opportunity to realize the dream of a college education? If last session is any indication, Texas plans on telling students and families "good luck with that."

Under the budget passed last year, higher education funding is $1.9 billion short of meeting current needs and an overall reduction of $800 million from the 2010-11 budget.

For specific programs, the shortfall is even more severe. The budget is $227 million short of maintaining current services for TEXAS Grants, providing college aid to 29,000 fewer students and just over half of those eligible for aid. Overall, the budget eliminates financial aid for over 43,000 students.

Even as college becomes more important and more expensive, we are falling further and further behind. This is not a prescription for success in the 21st century economy.

Tuition Deregulation is Key Problem

In the past, the governor, lawmakers and university presidents who wanted to increase spending on higher education were responsible for making the decisions. Do we raise taxes? Do we cut spending here to invest over there? Lawmakers made the decision and if Texans agreed, they would get re-elected. Now it is the exact opposite.

In 2003, Texas passed tuition deregulation, putting the power of setting tuition rates directly in the hands of universities. Today, universities raise tuition to get the money they need to operate and politicians (many of whom voted to give colleges this power) wag their finger and bluster about rising costs. What did you expect would happen?

Thanks to tuition deregulation, tuition costs have increased by 156 percent since Fall 2003. The percentage increase at select Texas universities is even higher. Since fall 2003, tuition at the University of Texas at Austin has increased 230 percent; tuition at the University of Texas at Dallas has increased 219 percent; tuition at Texas Tech University and the University of Houston has increased 178 percent; and tuition at Texas A&M University has increased 165 percent.

All tuition deregulation has really accomplished is to allow politicians to avoid having to make any hard choices on how we pay for higher education. So the next time you see a story about skyrocketing tuition, don't be mad at colleges because the legislature and governor forced them into this situation by abdicating all responsibility over tuition costs.

I am proud to have voted against tuition deregulation in 2003 and have fought to reverse this failed policy ever since. There are more and more legislators from both parties who are joining this cause, but we need the public to start raising Cain over this issue and force legislators to be accountable and make the right investment in our future.

Why This Matters

Texas is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. We are also one of the youngest, with over 30 percent of our population under the age of 18. We are also a minority-majority state which will be majority Hispanic by 2030, if not sooner. In fact, by 2040, nearly 60 percent of Texans will be Hispanic.

The future of our state literally depends on what we do to boost college opportunities for young Hispanics. An educated workforce is the key to economic development and job creation. In the knowledge economy, businesses are going to need highly-educated, highly-skilled workers. So the future of Texas' economy depends on improving college access and success of young Hispanics. Look at it this way: your retirement depends on ensuring these young people succeed, get a good job and make a good living. We want as many young people going to college and getting a degree so they can work at Dell and not Del Taco.

So how are we doing? Not well.

Texas ranks 28th in the nation in percentage of the overall population with a college degree, but minority graduates are much less likely to attain a degree. Among 25-34 year-olds, 43 percent of Anglos have at least an associate degree, compared to 28 percent for African Americans and only 15 percent for Hispanics.

We've seen some progress. Texas' Closing the Gaps plan has us moving in the right direction, as we are meeting, or are close to meeting, our short-term goals in boosting college graduates. I fear, however, that budget cuts, a change in philosophy and new standards for state financial aid-- combined with the rapidly growing Hispanic population -- will reverse this progress and jeopardize Texas' future.

We already fail to invest the resources to meet the needs of our current students, and soon we'll have millions more college-eligible kids in the pipeline. A strategy of more cuts and more aid to those who need it the least is exactly the wrong strategy if we want to keep Texas competitive over the long term.

This isn't their problem. It's your problem and our problem. And it is long past time that we start investing to solve it.

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