Texas public universities shouldn’t have to rely so heavily on tuition increases

Jordan Shenhar

This Valentine’s season, there’s been no love lost between Chancellor William McRaven and the Texas state legislature.

Ever since the state of Texas dissociated itself from setting tuition prices in 2003, the cost of attending UT has risen exponentially, falling in line with a worrisome national trend. As a response, former Gov. Rick Perry began to champion a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. In keeping with Perry’s line of reasoning, a number of bills under the Dome this session seek to restore the legislature’s power to set tuition costs, on the grounds that elected representatives will represent student interests better than university bureaucrats. Most school officials, as well as McRaven, fear that such an arrangement would prevent Texas schools from maintaining their top-tier faculty and facilities.

Perry and his lackeys are correct about one important point — college educations are expensive. So are hospital visits, plane tickets and entrees from Franklin’s BBQ. But no one’s demanding price cuts on those goods without first securing other sources of funding. That would require turning MD Anderson into the M*A*S*H tent and St. Louis ribs into McRibs. And any politician pushing such an agenda would get run out of the Capitol so fast that they’d qualify for an NCAA track scholarship, which means that they could at least guarantee themselves the cheap education they’d like to foist on everyone else. 

At the same time, high tuition at state universities is completely antithetical to the original purpose of public education. Before Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, effectively establishing the concept of the state school, he wrote that “by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people,” because “no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” But as it currently stands, the public university system is a major barrier against upward mobility and an affront to America’s equal-opportunity ethos.

And even though he was a slaveowner whose agrarian ideals probably would’ve made him an A&M fan, Jefferson wasn’t wrong that anyone who wants a college education deserves access to one. There are a number of federal programs that help the very poor in that regard, but families sputtering along right above the cutoff point for federal aid are sunk, and even middle-class parents find themselves stuck between sending their kids to college and saving for retirement.

In its most recent price increase, approved by the UT System Board of Regents last year, UT attempted to mitigate that problem by only raising costs for out-of-state students, jacking up their already exorbitant tuition by 2.6 percent. While that’s an understandable approach toward keeping UT competitive without hurting Texas citizens, it jeopardizes the University’s commitment to maintaining a diverse student body. As far as the admissions office is concerned, Texas might as well be a Lone Star — only 10 percent of students come from outside the state. Given Texas’ exceptional ethnic and cultural diversity, that’s not such a terrible number. But if it drops any lower as a result of the price increase, Texas natives might wind up graduating from college without ever encountering a good bagel or a moderate Republican. Enrolling students from a wide variety of backgrounds is an easy way for a school to mold an educated citizenry, and disincentivizing non-Texan applications will diminish UT’s ability to do so.

It’s admirable for Texas to look for ways to keep costs down. But instead of turning its universities into degree factories or cutting into its vaunted diversity, the state should target the underlying causes of tuition hikes. According to UT’s donation webpage, state funding for the school’s budget has declined from 47 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. That puts us at a stark disadvantage relative to peer institutions. For instance, the flagship University of California gets 28 percent of its funding from Sacramento. Given that the UC System would likely serve as a model for the UT System under Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to get five Texas schools ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities, the governor must consider some sort of increase in public funding. Even small-government Jefferson understood the value of a truly public university. Abbott wouldn’t have to abandon his Republican ideals to do the same.

Without stronger state support, Texas universities will have to scrounge for cash in order to meet his lofty goals, either by cajoling donors for Christian Grey levels of financial support or by raising tuition. Unfortunately, the latter scenario is more likely, if only because Texas’s sadomasochistic billionaires typically pour their fortunes into anti-education political campaigns like Perry’s.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Conn. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.