Back to the Future
Tue February 8, 2011 3:26 pm

One of the most startling passages in Gov. Rick Perry’s State of the State address was his promise that Texas college students will be able to attain a bachelor’s degree for only $10,000…books included!  Right on! thought this parent of a Texas college student. With today’s tuition rates of approximately $4k per semester, the typical undergraduate degree from a Texas institution costs upwards of $32,000. Not counting books. Why, Gov. Perry’s promise would roll back tuition to the days of….um, 2003.

That, of course, is when the Legislature chose to deregulate tuition, because it could not fully fund Texas colleges and universities. In fact, tuition deregulation was one of the main shell games employed by Perry, former House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to “balance” the budget adopted in 2003:  The state cut higher education by $260 million that year, but freed Boards of Regents to raise tuition, thereby transferring the burden of higher education to Texas families, with the middle-class taking the hardest hit. As I wrote in February, 2005,  the regents acted swiftly in raising tuition: before deregulation, an undergraduate degree in Texas could be obtained for about 12 grand.

Tuition deregulation was promoted by university administrators, like former Chancellor Mark Yudof, who had watched the state’s financial contribution to higher ed steadily decline. In the 1970s, the state paid about three-fourths of the cost of higher ed; today, at UT-Austin, the state’s share is a meager 16 percent.

It’s hard to see how the Legislature – at this spectacularly bad moment in the state’s fiscal history – will unwind the deregulation decision of 2003.

But, by happenstance, I sat next to the chairman of the Texas A&M Board of Regents, Morris Foster, during Perry’s speech. (Note to Perry’s staff: You might want to place eminent guests somewhere else besides the press corner slum in the House chamber.) Foster, former president of Exxon-Mobil and therefore someone who knows a thing or two about finances, did not flinch from Perry’s proposal. “We’re already working on it,” he told me.

When the $10,000-degree might be unveiled, Foster did not say. (One cynic suggested to me that Perry’s plan is to generate revenue by actually selling degrees for $10K, ala a phony online degree mill.) But Foster did tell me with conviction that “there will be zero increases in tuition” at Texas A&M while he is chairman. Without Texas’ affordable universities, Foster noted, he personally would probably “still be in Salado fixing tractors.”  At the urging of his father, who barely attended school, Foster recalled that he “showed up on the doorsteps of Texas A&M” and earned an engineering degree at a time when “costs were much lower.”

“My primary objective is to get costs under control,” he said. The A&M system easily identified about $18 million in savings by sharing services among the 11 campuses (rather than each having its own departments for human resources, etc.) He believes the administration will be able to cut more corners in areas like utility costs. But, as Perry said, in his speech, there are no sacred cows, a sentiment shared by Foster:

“We can get by with fewer professors than we have today,” Foster said. “We need to put professors, rather than grad students, in the classroom.”  Tenure, he argued, confers responsibility: “I support tenure. But I want to make sure people don’t hide behind the title and not work.”

Foster shared an important statistic: in the last six years, overhead at the A&M system has doubled – from $400 million to $800 million. That growth occurred during the era of tuition de-regulation, which allowed the swelling costs to be covered. “This is the time to get really efficient.”

Still, I have to agree with Paul Burka’s analysis in the previous post – the $10,000-degree sounds like an unfunded mandate on public universities. The state’s contribution to higher education funding has declined significantly since Foster and I reaped the benefits of a low-cost, high-quality Texas university education. No doubt there are some slacker professors who aren’t pulling their weight. I admire Foster for his commitment to set that straight. But Perry essentially promised today that he would take back the tuition deregulation decision in its entirety.  We know he can’t replace the lost tuition dollars with more state revenue. The Governor of Texas just put higher education in a tremendous vise.

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