The governor touting the $10,000 degree program at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, in 2012. (AP/San Angelo Standard-Times, Patrick Dove)
John Connally is remembered for his investments in higher education in the sixties that helped Texas businesses move into the high-tech age. George W. Bush signed HB 588 in 1997, which increased minority enrollment at the state’s public universities by guaranteeing admission for the top 10 percent of Texas’s high school students. And Rick Perry will be remembered for a 2003 law that forever changed the landscape of higher-education funding: tuition deregulation.
That issue proved the wisdom of one of the most famous sayings around the Capitol: policy doesn’t drive the budget; the budget drives policy. Faced with a $10 billion shortfall that session, lawmakers set about closing the gap in general revenue without raising taxes or finding additional revenue, so the ax came down on health and human services and higher education. For the first time in its history, the Legislature stopped its practice of setting tuition rates for the state’s public universities and allowed the boards of regents to take over that responsibility. The idea was to empower the universities to drive their own revenue, which would allow the state to lower its appropriations. Democrats fumed that changing the long-standing commitment to funding higher education would make it harder for individual families to bear the brunt of the costs. Republicans, with an eye toward fiscal restraint, complained that the law actually made the situation worse, which was echoed by a report from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in 2010. It concluded that deregulation “reduced the incentive for Texas universities to keep spending under control, shifted some higher education costs from taxpayers to students, exposed the lack of price competition in higher education, [and has] not significantly reduced the long-term pressure on state appropriations for higher education.”
For example, tuition revenue at the state’s public universities increased by 89 percent between 2004 and 2009, but state revenue, despite an initial decline after the law’s passage, grew by 25 percent during that same period. What did that mean to the average family? Well, the average full-time undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, would have paid $2,721 in tuition and fees in the fall of 2001 ($3,579 when adjusted for inflation), during the year of Perry’s first legislative session as governor. By 2013 that had jumped to $4,899. By comparison, the expenditures for the UT System, the largest in the state, jumped from $6 billion in 2001 to $14.6 billion in 2013. (Over that time frame, UT System enrollment jumped by 33.9 percent, and at UT-Austin, the flagship campus, the four-year graduation rate increased from 36.4 percent to 50.8 percent.) The question is, Is that money getting the best return on its investment? And did Texas work hard enough to make college accessible, considering that only one in five of today’s eighth graders is expected to earn a degree or certificate? “We’re not having an open conversation about who should be paying for higher education,” says Leslie Helmcamp, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, “and what we need to be doing as a state to create better jobs.”
As it turns out, Perry did try to have that conversation, in the form of the Seven Breakthrough Solutions, which were presented at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, in Austin, to the regents of the various university systems in the state in 2008. The ideas, which were closely associated with the work of the TPPF, were designed to address concerns that universities are inefficient and that the market should help determine costs. “I was at the meeting,” says former UT regents chair Charles Miller, “and there had been no previous discussions with the regents. You simply cannot provide the solutions before you identify the problems. Most of the ideas were so weak they died their own death.” Texas A&M tried to implement some of the ideas—the infamous red-and-black report measured professors’ performance based on how their salary, benefits, teaching load, and research affected the university’s bottom line—before abandoning them; UT resisted to the end. But that battle is part of the current war with the UT System Board of Regents. At press time, regent Wallace Hall was facing impeachment charges for massive information requests from the university in an attempt to seek out financial irregularities and abuses of power. Outsiders have seen his actions as a divisive attempt to remake the university and force the departure of UT’s president, landing the school in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. As the hearings against Hall drag on, there is little doubt that the publicity has hurt the school’s reputation and damaged its chance to hire top talent, including in the position for chancellor, which is currently open.
Another signature bill from the Perry era is one that made Texas the first state in the country to adopt in-state tuition for undocumented immigrant students, in 2001. “Perry was the leader on that issue,” Miller says. “There was no hesitation in his mind that it was the right thing to do, and he took a hard hit from national Republicans, who turned it into something almost evil, which was too bad.” But despite its broad support in Texas, that law may also be up for reconsideration—Dan Patrick, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, has said that he wants to end the practice if he is elected this November.
Average tuition and fees for a freshman at UT-Austin in fall 2001 (adjusted for inflation): $3,579
Average tuition and fees for a freshman at UT-Austin in fall 2013: $4,899