Tuition de-reg: Will it be an issue in the speaker's race?
Sun November 23, 2008 11:35 am

Here's the problem for Tom Craddick. The House passed tuition deregulation in 2003 for one reason and one reason only: The speaker twisted Republicans' arms to get the votes. Almost six years later, tuition and fees at Texas's public university have risen by an average of 50%, according to Robert Garrett's story in the Morning News today. The story focuses on a male student from Arlington and his fiance, a graduate student, who anticipate that they will enter the work force with a combined debt of $80,000.

Republican consultant Todd Smith told Garrett that among rank-and-file GOP lawmakers, "[T]here's growing consternation over 'runaway tuition.'" Smith had eight clients in this election cycle and all had to deal with the issue. "It's now being felt by the Republican base and is touching middle-class families the hardest," Smith told the Morning News. "It's going to be hard to ignore their unhappiness."

Not for Craddick. Garrett writes:

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, backed the move to get the Legislature out of the tuition-setting business, and he sees no need to reverse that, said spokeswoman Alexis DeLee. Although Mr. Craddick "recognizes that tuition rates have increased substantially," she said, he believes university officials "should take the lead in making schools' financial decisions because they know what their individual institutions' needs are."

This is a familiar bind for Republican House members during the Craddick regime. Craddick asks them to vote against the interests of their constituents to support a policy he wants—in this case, Republican families in Harris and Dallas counties, a core constituency for affordable college education—and the issue comes back to haunt them at election time. The Democrats are not going to let the Republicans get out of this session without forcing a vote on this issue. Will Craddick allow members to rein in future tuition increases? Or will he continue to let tuition rise and get more Republican members defeated at the polls?

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Full disclosure: I have written in favor of tuition deregulation in the pages of Texas Monthly. I think higher education is critical to the future of the state, and it has been apparent for some time that the public education and health care are higher priorities for the Legislature. If lawmakers are not going to fund higher ed, and if you believe that Texas needs universities of the top rank, then tuition dereg is the only alternative.

I have had second thoughts about this for a long time. Tuition increases are squeezing the middle class out of UT and Texas A&M, as Patricia Kilday Hart made clear in a column she wrote for Texas Monthly. UT hiked tuition by a third the first chance that they got, knowing that once tuition rates began to soar, the Legislature could never afford, and would never attempt, to provide the revenue the universities need. What tuition dereg has done is exactly what the Legislature tried to do with highways: fund the service with debt. Only, in tuition, the debt is incurred by the student and his family. Tuition, like tolls, has become a user fee. I'm all for having first class universities, but not at the cost of a generation of debtors. More of the money from rising tuition should go for funding scholarships, and less to pay for administrators' salaries.

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