SB 19 ignores benefits of higher education to slash funds

Zachary Stone

On April 4, the Texas Senate passed SB 19. The bill freezes public college tuition for the next four years, after which schools may increase tuition by 1 percent over inflation. The bill is the legislative manifestation of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s promise to make college cheaper. It still must pass the House, where it faces near-certain opposition. Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said that tuition is a “pretty good bargain,” noting that more students are applying than ever before and that the market seems to be working. Higher Education Chairman J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, also expressed opposition to a freeze.

The tussle between the House and Senate will likely be yet another fight between Lt. Gov. Patrick and Speaker Straus. And we will surely hear sound bites from Patrick: Nobody wants higher tuition, right?

Correct, Lt. Gov. Patrick. No one wants higher tuition. But no one wants underfunded schools, either.

While Patrick’s goal of reducing tuition is nice, it is really just part of a broader war on higher education writ large. For decades, the legislature has appropriated less and less money for each undergraduate at Texas public colleges and universities. This year, the Senate’s proposed budget would cut $330 million from higher education funding. In 1984, the state funded 47 percent of the UT budget; today, it funds 13 percent. To remain competitive, tuition has, no doubt, increased. The legislature’s solution is not to reinstate funding, but to cap tuition. Quite plainly, the Senate wants to force colleges and universities to shrink their ambitions.

In the Senate’s mind, there is a modest cap on how big, successful and enterprising our colleges and universities can be. Tuition freezes should be met with funding commitments, not budgetary slashes. As students, we often (rightly) make demands that cost money: increased student diversity, administrative review of bias incidents, beefed-up campus safety and increased counseling and mental health resources, to name a few. These things require University investment in the form of scholarships, employees and security installations. We also have expectations about how UT gets its money; students have demanded that the UT Investment Management Company (UTIMCO) consider ethics — as opposed to sheer profit — in its operations. Such a consideration will become an elusive luxury as traditional sources of funding dry up. A bare tuition freeze — without a corresponding increase in funding — will cause UT to fall down on many students’ hopes for what would make the school a better place.

SB 19 faces an uphill battle in the Texas House. But politics yields strange compromises, and we don’t want to come to school next semester and have UT cutting important programs or increasing class sizes. I’m going to call my representative (Gina Hinojosa, 512-463-0668) and tell her office that I would love a comprehensive funding bill that decreased tuition and maintained university resources.

SB 19 is not such a bill. 

Stone is a first-year law student from Plano.