The 83rd Texas Legislature

The past 10 years have seen higher education catapult to the top of the legislative agenda. This year, everything’s on the table.

The Texas Legislature is back in Austin for its 83rd session. Among the issues facing the state—from water, to health care, to immigration—is higher education

With the Legislature only meeting every two years, any decisions made on higher education are unlikely to be reversed before 2015. For friends of the Forty Acres, this session will be a turning point in determining how Texas will judge (and fund) its universities. Here’s what to look for in the coming months.

Fight for Funding

Funding is the starting point of every debate around higher education. The flagship University has seen legislative funding fall from 47 percent of the University budget in the mid-1980s to 13 percent this year. That means that state funding for UT’s research and teaching programs has grown by about $58 million dollars in the last 30 years, while UT’s budget has increased by about $1.84 billion, including research funding—which grew from 33 to 45 percent of the budget.

Admissions Overhaul

With the Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. University of Texas expected in June, UT is almost certainly on its way toward a new admissions policy with either outcome. If the court overturns the University’s current holistic review policy, the door is open for all UT freshmen to be admitted under the Top 10 Percent Law. That would mean the entire freshman class would be admitted on a single criterion. Complicating matters further is Sen. Kel Seliger’s comments, that even if UT wins the Fisher case, the Top 10 Percent Law may be scrapped.

Debate Over Degrees

Last year, Gov. Rick Perry announced his support for the creation of $10,000 four-year degrees. The move rankled some who contend that, so far, pilot programs have subsidized cheaper degrees at the expense of students who pay much more or favored schools that were under capacity. Supporters point to low graduation rates at some universities, rising costs, and the economic incentive to graduate more students in key fields as reasons these kinds of degrees are needed to create greater access.

New Rules Regarding Outcomes     

House Higher Education chair Dan Branch (R-Dallas) has made it clear that outcomes, like degrees conferred, should determine part of state universities’ base funding. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) agrees, noting in their Legislative outlook that 10 percent of base funding should be based on outcomes. In November, Branch went even further, filing the aptly-named House Bill 25, potentially making up to 25 percent of funding outcomes-based. So far, UT-Austin has been receptive to these changes.

Shifting Focus from Enrollment

Total enrollment has been a vital measure for state universities, and the state’s “Closing the Gaps” plan still calls for more students getting to and through college. But with the turn toward outcomes, enrollment may recede as a defining issue. UT leads the state in both enrollment and four-year graduation rates, and is likely to fare well in a move away from enrollment. President Powers has committed to raising UT’s graduation rate from 53 to 70 percent by 2016. Harvard’s rate is about 87 percent. A&M’s is 51 percent.

Tweaking Grant Programs

The Legislature created the TEXAS Grant to help students gain access to college, offering up to $7,400 per year to qualified Texas students, though the average award is about $5,000. By comparison, UT undergraduate tuition costs between $4,600-$5,400 per semester for Texas residents in the 2012-13 school year. The THECB is looking to tighten requirements and lower the average award amount in order to serve a rapidly expanding number of qualified applicants. Sen. Judith Zaffirini has also filed a bill that will support the state’s ailing B-on-Time Loan program.

Undocumented Students’ Status

Undocumented Texas residents who meet certain qualifications can be eligible to pay in-state tuition at public colleges, but that may change. State Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) and state Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) have both filed bills that would exclude undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition. In 2001, House Bill 1403 overwhelmingly passed a majority-Republican Legislature. Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill, but was criticized for it. Today, more politicians are against providing in-state tuition. Larson told the Texas Tribune that he believes the current system gives undocumented students an unfair advantage. Undocumented students argue that those who have lived in Texas most of their lives should qualify for in-state tuition.

Global Competitiveness

The Coordinating Board has also emphasized economic competitiveness as a driving force for improving higher education. The state is looking to create an educated workforce that can compete not only with other states, but with other nations. In its Legislative recommendations, the THECB notes: “Today, we focus on achieving parity with leading states such as California, New York, and Massachusetts. Tomorrow, we must compete with international powers like China, Korea, and Germany.” Look for job readiness, from associate’s degrees to defense research, to dominate the rhetoric this year.

The Value of Research

The role of research is at the center of a number of debates, from tuition and state funding to philanthropy and federal grants. Many have argued that Texas is falling behind other large states like California and New York, with only three tier-one campuses (UT, A&M, and Rice, with Texas Tech and the University of Houston close behind). Eight universities are now classified as emerging research institutions, part of a state-sanctioned competition established by the Legislature in 2009.

Tuition Tussle

In-state tuition at UT-Austin is frozen for two years, despite the University’s request to raise tuition 2.6 percent in each of the next two years in order to beef up programs that encourage on-time graduation. During the 2003 legislative session, lawmakers deregulated tuition, and Texans have seen tuition fees increase an average of 90 percent. By 2009, tuition had surpassed state appropriations as a source of academic funding. Meanwhile, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes has said that students are avoiding college because of “apocalyptic” accounts of tuition and living expenses. Branch has filed a bill giving universities the option to lock in tuition at set four-year rates. How Texans continue to work on college access and tuition costs may be one of the most perennially fraught issues—not only in this year’s session, but in years to come.


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