Legislative season brings uncertainties for higher education

Legislative season brings uncertainties for higher education

Legislative season brings uncertainties for higher education
February 22
16:58 2017

On Jan. 19, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed two bills to file a tuition freeze and the elimination of the tuition assistance program. The tuition assistance program takes money from students’ tuition to provide financial aid to other low-income students.

Another issue in this year’s legislative season is the use of “special items.” Special items allow lawmakers to provide money for university programs in the state budget aside from standard appropriations formulas. In the 2015 legislative season, 362 of these items provided $1.1 billion, which went toward state-funded public universities. The Texas House wants to use this plan for their budget, the Texas Senate does not.

“Some legislators think they should, in tougher fiscal times, primarily fund operating formulas, financial aid, and facilities — leaving out these many special items for two years,” Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas System, said in an email. “The House and Senate budgets are very far apart on this issue and it is too early to predict the outcome.”

Leaving these special items out of the 2018-19 budget could pose threats for many programs at the UNT System.

“Elimination of all special item funding would make it hard to maintain the affordability of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS) at UNT… Some research and service programs at our UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth would be eliminated and UNT Dallas and the College of Law in Dallas would lose transitional funding,” Jackson said. “These reductions of transition funding would limit the ability of those programs to operate, or require significant downsizing.”

Although the affordability of the TAMS program might diminish, Jackson said the UNT campus wouldn’t be much affected.

On Jan. 31, Betsy DeVos was confirmed to be the nation’s education secretary by the Senate. On the same day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agencies to impose a hiring freeze at the State of State address as a way to free up $200 million in the state budget.

There are vacant jobs throughout the UNT System, which can affect how some colleges are maintained and run.

UNT spokesperson Margarita Venegas said there are currently 30 unfilled positions at UNT.

“We do not yet have a count of the affected positions because the freeze only affects positions that are funded out of state appropriations, as opposed to other sources such as locally generated tuition and fees or research funding,” Jackson said. “While this order applies to all state agencies, universities are particularly affected by the timing because of the need for faculty appointments for summer school.”

Both DeVos and Abbott have similar takes on education vouchers when it comes to schooling. Education vouchers take from public funds, or taxpayer dollars, for students and their parents to use at any school they choose, including and sometimes only redeemable at private schools.

“Congress will be debating the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act later this year, but it is not yet clear what positions the administration will be on all the issues of financial aid, loan repayment, accreditation, and Title IX enforcement to name just a few,” Jackson said. “It’s too early to tell how active Secretary DeVos and the Department of Education will be on those debates.”

As Patrick and senators call for a freeze on tuition, Jackson doesn’t deem it likely the bill will hold up.

“I am skeptical that the Legislature will be able to come up with enough funds to cover all the needs of all the universities in this growing state for the next four years,” Jackson said, “But if they do, then most university leaders would not plan to raise tuition anyway and would not see the legislation as harmful, in that unlikely circumstance.”

Three Board of Regents members and the non-voting student regent at the University of North Texas terms will be up in May 2017. Each Board of Regents member is appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate, which directly influences how public education is governed.

In the “unlikely circumstance” of a tuition freeze, the Board of Regents would have to look deeper into how the system continues its educational processes.

“Each of our three campuses has different budget needs and has different schedules of tuition increase over the past decade,” Jackson said. “University of North Texas, in particular, has relied on a very strong fixed-rate, four-year tuition plan so that many undergraduate students experience no tuition increase.”

Featured Image: University of North Texas System Chancellor Lee Jackson, left, walks with Neal Smatresk, who was named by the UNT Board of Regents as sole finalist for the presidency at UNT. Photograph taken on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in Denton. (Gary Payne/UNT Photo)

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Tomas Gonzalez

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