Editorial: Will Texas tuition rates ever come down?

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graduationIn the contentious battle to slow soaring tuition costs, legislators have argued for years that out-of-control spending by universities has driven rates up.

So it was intriguing to learn in a recent Dallas Morning News story that tuition at Texas universities actually rose faster over the last 25 years when lawmakers — not university officials — set the rates.

The data-crunching showed that since 1990, tuition increased at a higher clip at just 12 of 37 Texas campuses when school administrators were in control. In 2003, they were charging nearly $1,000 less than the rest of the schools.

The findings point out that no matter who sets the rates, there’s no getting around the fact that tuition and fees have ballooned 300 percent since 1990. Texas college students paid less than $1,000 a year 25 years ago, compared with more than an average $7,000 now.

Let’s not kid ourselves, that means a dramatic increase in students saddled with long-term debt.

That’s dangerous in a state like Texas, where most high school graduates have to borrow money for college. Other students make the shortsighted decision to skip college altogether because they simply can’t afford it.

Neither of those scenarios bodes well for the long-term economic health of the state. Both contribute to a shrinking middle class and widening income disparity. We can’t afford that.

It’s not hard to figure out how we got here.

Texas is part of a national trend of state governments choosing to disinvest in higher education. State officials cut $173 million in higher education funding in 2003 alone. Predictably, that has resulted in students paying a bigger share.

You can’t underfund education and then complain that the economic scale is out of balance. Clearly, the state needs to put more money in the pot.

Four-year institutions also have to do their part. This newspaper has supported the right of schools to set their own rates. But administrators must be strong financial stewards and come up with solutions to hold costs down and not just pass them on to students.

All of this makes the work of the task force that Gov. Greg Abbott set up last month even more critical. He asked the Texas Education Agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Workforce Commission to explore ways to make college more affordable.

There’s certain to be a lot of finger-pointing during the next session over escalating tuition rates. Instead of focusing on who gets to set the rates, we urge lawmakers and Texas school officials to study the new data carefully and work together to finally come out of Austin with a concrete strategy to reduce costs.

Texas’ future is at stake.

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