Written by Annyston Pennington.

On November 4th in the Glickman Center of the CLA building, the Liberal Arts Council and its internal College Ambassadors committee coordinated a town hall meeting to discuss a proposed tuition increase with Dean Randy Diehl of the College of Liberal Arts, UT Student Regent Justin Drake, and Texas Tribune higher education reporter Matthew Watkins.

Moderated by LAC president Austin Reynolds and the College Ambassadors committee co-chairs, Jordee Rodriquez and Kaitlin Bethay, the town hall consisted of the three guest panelists touching on the nuances of the tuition increase and a Q&A session.

According to Diehl there has been “no tuition increase in four to five years,” and this lack of change has brought concerns about the maintenance of competitiveness for faculty and graduate research. In 2009, the College of Liberal Arts administration had been given the permission and promise of funding for the recruitment of new faculty in order to improve the student-to-faculty ratio in the college. This push would include 48 tenure-track faculty members who would be funded via a previously approved tuition increase.

Once the professors had already been hired, Diehl continued, the college was hit with the news that they would not in fact see the money they had been promised. Since then, the college has scrambled to cover the financial ground lost in the push for faculty. At that time, the college employed 560 tenure-track professors; that number has decreased to 520 and is expected to drop further to about 450 should funding remain unchanged. It was never stated explicitly that professors were not being fired, just that the college would not be filling these voids.

Professor retention is not the only sector of the college that has suffered losses; the college has seen a reduction in graduate students from 1800 to about 1300 in the same time, COLA having no money to pay for research stipends. The inability to pay competitive salaries to professors and researchers has administrators worried that without a change in tuition, the University will not be able to uphold the academic prestige of its degrees or continue to compete with private sector employers.

The inability to pay competitive salaries to professors and researchers has administrators worried that without a change in tuition, the University will not be able to uphold the academic prestige of its degrees. 

In light of these challenges, Student Regent Justin Drake pointed out that the tuition increase is currently only a proposal to be presented to the Board of Regents in February, at which point, all UT system campuses will make their recommendations regarding the increase.

[Edit made 11/10/15] According to Drake, the statement upon which the Board voted October 2nd read as such:

“Campuses are authorized to proceed with consultative processes that engage students who are representative of the student body to develop recommendations for increases in tuition and required fees for FY2017 and FY2018. Such recommendations may include an increase of 2% per year to account for cost escalation as well as reasonable and prudent additional increases that address issues of the greatest institutional priority. All requests must be well justified and must address issues of student affordability. Requests are expected to be considered by the Board at its February meeting.”

Should the proposal be implemented, students would see a 2% increase across colleges. The 2% comes in response to inflation, which particularly affects higher education. As Liberal Arts tuition falls “a little under $10,000 per year,” for in-state students, the 2% increase would amount to about $200. Earlier in the panel Diehl recognized that students of different levels of family income would feel the $200 increase at varying degrees of financial stress.

In response, Drake urges students concerned with how this 2% will manifest for them to pay attention to what percentages of their schooling should be covered by financial aid. The percentage covered decreases as family income increases. Drake also noted that students will have to consider that the $200 is not just the dollar amount but may be factored into student loans, with interest.

Drake has heard arguments for and against the tuition increase. Pro-increase arguments noted the cost escalation associated with higher education as well as the decrease in state appropriations toward public institutions, though tuition has stayed flat. State funding is also based upon enrollment statistics from the past two years, so the money appropriated for universities does not account for growth. On a university level, “a lot of money goes to recruiting and maintaining faculty by providing competitive salaries,” Drake added, referring to what Diehl had touched on. Competitive salaries are becoming even more of an issue for emerging research universities such as UT Dallas and UT El Paso.

Those who are against the tuition increase are not only critical of the increase itself but the way the proposal has been generally presented—“as an expectation rather than a recommendation,” he said. According to Drake, the Board does recognize, however, that a tuition increase isn’t the only answer to funding; they propose identifying areas of inefficiency, lobbying for more state funding, and the exploration of innovative ways to maintain affordability, such as online classes to replace massive lecture halls. Drake said that in order to have students and the Board communicating effectively, there is a “need for tuition increase…to be clearly communicated, and where the money is going needs to be outlined in detail.”

[Drake said], there is a “need for tuition increase…to be clearly communicated, and where the money is going needs to be outlined in detail.”

Matthew Watkins from the Texas Tribune provided some legal and historical perspective on the issue of the cost of higher education. To clarify, Watkins said that UT Austin is not the only school looking into tuition increases; Texas A&M has also put forward a proposal based off concern for inflation. However, most Board members and state lawmakers believe tuition increase should be a last resort. Watkins quoted Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick as saying he “[hopes] state universities think twice before doing this.” Patrick also requested that the Senate’s higher education committee look in to tuition regulation.

According to Watkins, about a decade ago, the Texas Legislature regulated tuition prices but eventually agreed to give Universities the freedom of setting their own prices based upon the specific needs of their campus. Though prices rose shortly after the shift to self-regulation among Universities, Watkins notes that the amount by which tuition has increased in those ten years is significantly less than how it had increased during state regulation. However, due to inflation, the price of education now is obviously more than twenty years ago.

Due to inflation, the price of education now is obviously more than twenty years ago.

After debriefing the audience on their individual understanding of the situation, the LAC panel began the Q&A during which they read questions submitted via Google Doc to the event page.

Will there be an increase in financial aid for minority/financially challenged students?

This has been a major concern of many students with the news of the tuition increase, as UT has been questioned for its lack of diversity—most recently during the Texan Talks conversation with President Fenves. Many worry that tuition increases would continue to price out minority students who otherwise would be qualified to attend. Dean Diehl, however, responded succinctly that there are laws in place to ensure that financial aid increases in response to changes in tuition.

What are [the panelists’] responses to potential state regulation of tuition?

Justin Drake stated that—while legislative control over tuition would provide a system of checks and balances, better providing services to lower, middle class students—the legislature is not an expert on higher education. Only the individual institutions can know what is needed for their students, faculty, and staff to succeed. Dean Diehl added that affordability and accessibility are primary concerns for everyone in higher education. Diehl related that four years ago, President Powers had asked him to chair a taskforce responsible for increasing the four-year graduation rate. “Why speed this up?” he said. Student loan burden increases the longer a student is at university; cutting degree time saves students money.

How can [students] lobby the higher education legislative committee for an increase in state funding?

Watkins responded that the discussion on tuition would be taking place in the Senate into next year. He recommended that students show up at these hearings and express opinions there as well as write letters and make phone calls to representatives. Although lawmakers are averse to extra spending, Watkins suggested that UT was in better luck for additional funding due to the strength of the constituency. Dean Diehl added that while administration cannot lobby legislature, he urged students to take this initiative. Drake also suggested students contact the Student Advisory council, which highlights major students concerns for the Board of Regents. College Ambassadors committee co-chair Jordee Rodriguez added that Invest in Texas–a coordinated event through the Senate of College Councils–facilitates students in lobbying for higher education issues.

How will [Universities] make sure undocumented students will continue to have access to affordable education because financial aid is less accessible?

Watkins acknowledged East Dallas undocumented immigrants who have a hard time getting into universities, not due to lack of merit but a lack of scholarships and funding. With the DREAM Act under constant fire within the Texas legislation, the concern that higher tuition would continue to restrict undocumented students from higher education is not unfounded. Diehl stated, though, that to his knowledge, most financial aid does not consider undocumented status, but beyond that he was uncertain that much else has been done to consider undocumented students.

After the Q&A, each panelist offered a closing statement. Justin Drake drove home the necessity of such forums as the LAC Town Hall through which students may communicate their concerns and administration can convey information. He has been visiting each UT campus and hopes that by February, he will have a clear idea of what students want and can present their perspective to the Board.

[Watkins said], when [Board members and lawmakers] increase tuition “people like me” write articles about how they’re pricing out students. In the alternative, other journalists will write that they’re not providing competitive education.

Matthew Watkins reminded students that those who are making these decisions regarding tuition are in difficult positions; no matter what they decide Board members and lawmakers will always be criticized. Watkins said, when they increase tuition “people like me” write articles about how they’re pricing out students. In the alternative, other journalists will write that they’re not providing competitive education.

“We have to be committed to continuing to build excellence, which means we need the resources to do it.” -Dean Diehl 

Dean Diehl’s closing statement was to “underscore this point—the degree that [students] receive at UT has an enormous amount of prestige.” UT is one of the top research universities in the world, and in order to maintain that prestige, “we have to be committed to continuing to build excellence, which means we need the resources to do it. Modest tuition increases is one of the ways to protect the quality of the degree.”

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