University of Texas Grapples With Tuition, Funding

A dispute is brewing at the University of Texas at Austin over who should manage funding and financial aid.

Since 2003, the university has had a deregulated tuition policy, meaning a private board of regents has had the power to set tuition. The Tuition Relief Now Campaign, a bipartisan group on campuses across the state, proposed a resolution called AR 12 to the student government that would end tuition deregulation.

''Deregulation is part of the failed policies of the past five years that have been hurting Texas students and Texas families,'' said Jimmy Talarico, a UT student and statewide director of the campaign.

The group argues in a press release that tuition deregulation places an ''undue burden'' on students and that tuition is ''skyrocketing'' as a result. In-state tuition is $8,532 per year, about $2,000 more than the average annual tuition at public U.S. universities, according to the College Board. Out-of-state students pay $27,760.

The student government voted 23-14 against AR 12, leaving university tuition decisions in the hands of the Board of Regents. Despite the failure of AR 12, Talarico pledged that the Tuition Relief Now Campaign would continue lobbying for the change.

Nationwide Problem

The debate at UT is part of a nationwide discussion at state universities over how to handle tuition rates in an increasingly unstable economic climate. The State University of New York dealt with similar issues last year, when tuition rates jumped suddenly after being at a fixed and relatively low level for a period of time.

At SUNY — which also has a deregulated tuition policy — the Board of Regents adopted what is known as a ''rational tuition hike'' that involves small annual increases in tuition based on the Higher Education Price Index.

In Texas, however, the battle to end tuition deregulation continues. ''It's good that we reached out to student government, but it's not the end of the road,'' said Talarico, referring to the failure of AR 12. ''We're organizing a massive student lobby day this week—we're going to meet at the UT campus and walk over to the Capitol, where we have over 100 appointments scheduled to discuss university funding and financial aid.''

According to student body president Keshav Rajagopalan, the vote wasn't a vote against affordable tuition rates, but against making state legislators responsible for those rates.

'Misguided and Misdirected'

''The assembly voted the way we did because the Tuition Relief Now Campaign's goals are misdirected and misguided,'' Rajagopalan said. ''Tuition relief is important, but the way we felt is that who sets tuition doesn't matter in terms of the relief.''

Rajagopalan said that the primary issues in discussing tuition need to be funding and financial aid. He stressed that focusing on ending tuition deregulation allowed the issue to become little more than a campaign platform for politicians.

''The Tuition Relief Now Campaign just helps legislators make sensationalized claims,'' Rajagopalan said. ''The process we have is better because we're setting our tuition rather than making it a political process that happens every two years.''

Talarico said that although it's easy to get caught up in partisan politics, politicians are a reflection of their constituents and could represent the needs of students fairly.

''When the Board of Regents are in charge, they're not accountable for students, can't be voted out or be responsible for constituents,'' Talarico said.

Hope for Relief

Rajagopalan said he hoped the university would eventually implement a tuition freeze followed by a policy to peg future increases to the Consumer Price Index.

University spokesman Matt Flores defended tuition deregulation, saying the flexibility ''allowed us to offer incentives to try and get students in and out of college more quickly—flat rate tuition incentives, discounted tuition—tools we have at our disposal what we didn't before. By graduating sooner, they're spending less money.

"We understand individuals who have concerns about rising tuition," Flores continued, "but we recognize a need to be able to control our own destinies with how we use tuition to make sure that we're able to fund essential operations."

Students not involved in campaigns or Student Government aren't sure what to do to curb tuition rates, but remain concerned that fees have gotten out of control for a state school.

"My stepdad recently lost his job and truthfully, we're hurting for money," said junior Cody Schultz. "I recognize that no matter if it's a committee or a legislator making decisions about funding, it's going to take time to fix. I just wish we hadn't gotten to this point in the first place and can figure out a way out in the near future."

In the meantime, Schultz joked about the way his tuition money is being spent: "I'm totally fine with all the money I pay straight to [football head coach] Mack Brown."