Tuition aid is victory for UT-Austin, another loss for other UT System schools

Another barrier to attending UT-Austin has fallen. On July 9, the University announced that about 8,600 Longhorns with an annual family income less than $65,000 will receive free tuition beginning in the fall of 2020. An additional 5,700 students whose families make up to $125,000 will receive increased financial aid.

The 13 other UT System schools, from UT Dallas to UT Permian Basin, aren’t as fortunate. None of them are getting a tuition aid program like ours. Often, with lower-income students and tuition rates, similar to UT-Austin, these schools are the ones that need it the most.

UT-Austin’s tuition aid program, or the Texas Advance Commitment, will be funded with a one-time $160 million endowment from the Permanent University Fund, a funding system for the UT and A&M systems based in profits from over two million acres of West Texas land. Thanks to the discovery of massive oil reserves under PUF land, the fund is worth around $22 billion today.

Under the state constitution that established the PUF, the UT and A&M systems are allocated up to 7% of PUF funds each year. As of 2019, that’s about $1.5 billion, of which the UT System gets two-thirds. UT-Austin is allowed to use a portion of these PUF funds for “operational expenses,” which includes financial aid. Every other UT System campus, however, is only allowed PUF funds for construction purposes.

Our system has enough money to invest back in our students — students at every UT campus — but an archaic state constitution is holding us back.

We talked to UT-Austin President Gregory Fenves about this peculiar restraint on allocation of PUF funds. He told us that he sees it as a benefit, not a drawback. 

“I actually see it as visionary to create this really conservative savings plan, because that’s what the PUF is,” Fenves said. “It’s a savings account to support the two grant research universities in the state. If (PUF money) was spread over all (UT System) institutions, it wouldn’t have much effect.”

The one-time $160 million endowment allocated for UT-Austin’s tuition aid is designed to be self-sustaining. The endowment will generate $8 million of yearly interest, which will fund tuition aid expansion. For perspective, the endowment represents less than 1% of the PUF’s around $22 billion. With all of this excess capital — and the ability to grow it through investment — it seems absurd that no other UT campus could benefit. After all, these are the campuses that need tuition aid the most.

The median parental income of UT students is $123,900, which is more than double the state’s median income. At UT-San Antonio it’s $73,800. At UT-Arlington, it’s $62,700. At UT-El Paso, it’s $37,500. None of these colleges or any other in the UT System have a tuition aid program like the one UT-Austin just established, yet their tuitions are all comparable to ours.

UT-Austin therefore remains the best-served and least-accessible UT System campus. It’s true that billions of dollars of PUF money has made UT one of the world’s top public universities and research institutions. It’s also true that funding in the UT System doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where UT-Austin students benefit at the expense of all others.

UT-Arlington did have a tuition aid program that provided free tuition for students whose families earned up to $65,000 annually. But without access to the PUF, the program was scaled back, and eventually shuttered in 2015 after funds dried up. Universities don’t need billions in oil money to have bold and transformative tuition aid, though. Just ask the University of California System, Louisiana or even Texas A&M

We have nearly $22 billion in oil savings. What took us so long?

Amending the state constitution would make these funds available as possible tuition aid for all UT System schools. Though up to 7% of the PUF’s net worth can be allocated yearly to the UT and A&M Systems, less than 5% typically is. That’s over $400 million that we could be spending but aren’t — the equivalent of multiple $160 million endowments.

Instead, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on financial sinkholes like a failed Houston campus, a struggling technology startup and a brand new office building in the middle of downtown Austin. 

If yearly PUF allocations can finance regents’ pet projects and tuition aid for UT-Austin with money left over, they can finance tuition aid across the UT System. It’s time to amend our outdated state constitution and allow all UT schools to benefit.

The main tower of UT-Austin has again cast a shadow on all other UT institutions. Tuition aid for low income Longhorns will greatly ease financial burdens for students on the Forty Acres, but one must ask what aid there will be for UT-Tyler, UT-Rio Grande Valley, UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-Permian Basin and UT-San Antonio, among others.

We applaud the students who fought for this reform and the regents for passing it unanimously. Thousands of lives will be changed as a result of it, and thousands will be saved from the predatory throes of student loan debt. However, even when making strides, we must stay aware of structural barriers that remain in place and ask ourselves what more can be done. 

Every student deserves the opportunity to attend college and graduate debt free. We must ensure that dream is achievable across the UT System, not just on the Forty Acres.

The editorial board is composed of associate editors Sanika Nayak and Abby Springs and editor-in-chief Spencer Buckner.