Higher education costs and procedures were a frequent discussion topic at the Texas Tribune Festival this past weekend and offered what some say is a preview of the upcoming legislative session.
Sponsored by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit digital news outlet focusing primarily on Texas politics, the second annual festival featured Texas politicians, experts, UT administration and other relevant speakers who participated in panels. Gov. Rick Perry made higher education a talking point in the festival’s opening session when he endorsed freezing student tuition at UT-Austin for the next four years.
The UT System Board of Regents raised tuition in some form at all UT System institutions this past May. Perry has been adamant about decreasing higher education costs in the past and said he would not support any tuition increase. The freeze would lock in tuition for each entering freshmen class students for four years.
“If you get out of the University of Texas with a $50,000 debt, I don’t know if we’ve served you well,” Perry said.
Perry said if students do not graduate in four years, they can expect to see tuition rates increase during their fifth year. UT’s current four-year graduation rate is 52.2 percent.
According to an Associated Press report, the average student at a state university in Texas is paying 55 percent more for their education than they did a decade ago, when the legislature deregulated tuition, allowing schools to set their own rates.
Later that weekend, UT System chancellor Francisco Cigarroa said he would support a tuition freeze for students.
However, Cigarroa said it is also important for UT-Austin to address the needs of students who may not be able to graduate in four years because of other responsibilities, such as those with hectic work schedules.
“I think one has to be careful to make sure one size does not fit all,” Cigarroa said.
Not all undergraduate degrees at UT can be obtained in four years. For example, a professional bachelor’s degree in architecture is a five-year program. Neither Perry or Cigarroa said anything regarding UT students in five-year programs.
The festival hit a loud note Friday when about 300 individuals from across the state came to Austin to protest Perry’s stance on Texas health care during the opening session.
Protesters chanted “Rick makes me sick” outside the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center Friday night, as Perry spoke inside in a question-and-answer forum with Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune.
The protesters wanted Perry to endorse the Affordable Care Act, a federal initiative that would give Texas more federal funds for the low-income program Medicaid and other health initiatives.
At the 83rd Legislative Session Preview, a panel covering higher and public education Saturday, an audience member asked higher education legislative officials about the possibility of giving the student regent member of each university system a vote.
Texas State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said adding a student vote would bring the total number of voting board members to 10 and boards could reach impasses on issues.
But State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said the issue is complicated and students would need to consider qualifications for a student regent, as current voting regents have years of experience.
“There is some support for a student regent voting, but I do not believe the votes are in place to pass it,” Zaffirni said.
Later Saturday, an audience member asked Cigarroa about his stance on Fisher v. Texas — the upcoming Supreme Court case challenging the UT’s consideration of race in admissions.
Cigarroa said he believes a holistic admissions process is important.
“I’m not sure UT would be getting the rich diversity it is getting right now without this process,” Cigarroa said.
Additional reporting by Olivia Arena.