AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The idea of cutting college tuition has sparked a political grassfire at the Texas capitol. Two out of three senators are for it. Students are staging rallies. And overflow crowds are expected once the legislative hearings begin.
But every populist cause has its naysayers, and in this case the critics say putting the brakes on tuition could cause a big drop in university budgets and ultimately degrade the quality of the diplomas they give out.
The central complaint is that state lawmakers are talking a lot about delivering relief to middle-class parents but are saying precious little about how they'll keep paying for faculty salaries and fund research if tuition dollars start drying up.
"On the one hand they want to cap tuition, and on the other hand they want to starve the institution," said Kevin Hegarty, the chief financial officer at UT Austin. "Something's got to give."
Students are planning to rally Thursday at the capitol before fanning out to lawmakers' offices to drum up support for a tuition freeze. The group has coalesced behind Senate Bill 105, which would put a moratorium on tuition increases for two years, peg future hikes to the cost of living and require that most fee hikes be approved by a majority of students.
Though 22 of 31 senators support a temporary freeze on tuition increases, some influential ones are warning of potentially severe financial fallout. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, is one of three Democrats who haven't caught the tuition moratorium fever.
"The unintended consequences of not funding higher education adequately and of not providing different sources of revenue will be mediocrity and inadequacy and that's not acceptable," Zaffirini said. "The state has a responsibility to fund higher education at a higher level, not lower."
Direct state assistance from the Legislature for institutions of higher education has continued to decline in real terms in recent years.
At UT, the state's flagship university, annual state support for the academic budget, when adjusted for inflation, has decreased by 1 percent since 1990, figures provided by UT show. It's a similar story at Texas A&M University, where direct assistance from state tax dollars amounted to 44 percent of the school's operating budget in 1993 but only 26 percent in 2007.
Tuition and fees, meanwhile, are rising in importance as a source of revenue growth. It represents nearly half of the revenue used to fund UT's core budget, for example. The cost of education per semester at UT, counting tuition and fees, rose 57 percent, from $2,721 in 2003 to $4,266 in 2008.
Facing an ever-higher financial burden, students and parents alike have begun to push back.
"It's time for a change," said Andy Jones, spokesman for the University Democrats at UT Austin. "Nobody should be priced out of higher education. This is the civil rights issue of our generation."
It's also a hot-button political issue. Jones' group has teamed up with the rival UT College Republicans and others to launch a publicity campaign they're calling "Tuition Relief Now!"
The group is behind Thursday's rally, and backing the Senate bill.
The bill would reverse a decision the Legislature made in 2003. Facing a historic $10 billion shortfall, lawmakers that year allowed universities to raise tuition on their own. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said he regrets ever going along with tuition deregulation.
"It was a big mistake, and I've been trying to put the genie back in the bottle ever since," Williams said. A conservative, Williams has found common ground with liberals who want to re-regulate college tuition.
Williams called tuition the "crack cocaine for higher education" and said universities wouldn't stop raising it even if the state gives them more money.
"It's like they're addicted to it," he said. "The can't get themselves off these tuition increases, so we're going to have to do an intervention."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.