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Texas state universities to seek tuition hikes

Austin: Texas students planning on attending a state university  next year should get ready to dig deeper into their pockets for  that education. Several of the state’s universities — including the  University of Texas at El Paso — are expected to propose tuition  hikes for the coming biennium after state lawmakers slashed  higher education funding by nearly $1 billion to help close a $27  billion shortfall.

UTEP next week will be among the state institutions that will  submit plans to their governing boards asking for permission to  raise tuition by up to 2.6 percent for undergraduates and 3.6  percent for out-of-state and graduate students for each of the  next two years. The university plans to propose a hike that would  cost an undergraduate student taking 15 hours a semester an  additional $90 in 2012-13, pushing tuition and fees from $3,478  to $3,568, and about $92 in 2013-14 that would raise costs to  about $3,660. The increase for graduate and non-resident  students would be $125.30 in 2012-13 and $129.75 the following year.

“We’re trying to keep it as reasonable as possible in these tough economic times,” said Gary Edens, associate vice president and dean of students at UTEP.

The plan

State budget cuts will short UTEP by $27 million over the next two years. University officials say the tuition increase, which will be proposed Dec. 15, is needed to keep it competitive as it seeks to become nationally recognized for research. They also said the additional money will be used to recruit and retain faculty, develop extra online and summer courses, and help pay for a $250 incentive award for students who take 12 classes, or 36 hours, a year.

The tuition increase would give UTEP an additional $6.2 million in 2012-13 and $5.2 million in 2013-14. Some of that money by law must be designated to state financial aid programs, leaving UTEP with $5.3 million to spend in 2012-13 because of the increase and $4.4 million the following year, Edens said.

Details on how the money will be divvied up are still being worked out, said Edens, who could not provide a complete breakdown on where the money would be spent.

Under preliminary estimates that are subject to change, Edens said about $1.25 million could be used to bring in 12 to 15 new faculty members and $350,000 would go toward providing about 50 additional courses in the summer. In an effort to boost graduation rates, about $600,000 would be dedicated to providing a $250 incentive for students who successfully complete 36 hours a year. The money, which is about the same amount a student would pay in tuition increases, is projected to benefit up to 2,000 of UTEP’s more than 22,600 student population.

Edens was unable to provide an estimate for the number of online courses the university plans to add and which departments would benefit from extra classes, faculty and staff.

Anthony De Bruyn, assistant vice chancellor of public relations for the UT System, said it is too early to speculate on how many universities will seek an increase but added that state budget cuts may have pushed some institutions to make such decisions.

Proposals for raising tuition at the UT System must include plans for shortening the time to get a degree and for improving four-year graduation rates. The proposals will still have to be reviewed and approved by the system’s board of regents — a process that could extend through March.

UTEP and the University of Texas at Austin are among the institutions considering increases, while the president of the University of Texas at Arlington has said he will not propose a hike. Students at UT Arlington currently pay $4,646 a semester.

“UT Arlington is trying to attain national research university status. El Paso is as well,” De Bruyn said. “Depending on what the circumstances are with regard to the budget, in order for them to successfully execute the mission of education and research, I think that drove the reason why particularly Austin and El Paso moved forward.”

Rising tuition

UTEP charges the lowest tuition and fees of the seven universities vying to become national research powerhouses, known as Tier 1.

Still, UTEP students have seen about a 79 percent increase in costs since state lawmakers deregulated tuition eight years ago. Total tuition and fees at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2003 were $1,837 for a student taking 15 semester credit hours. By 2010, tuition and fees rose to $3,280 for the same student, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Legislators in 2003 gave the governing boards of state universities, whose members are appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, the ability to raise tuition after cutting funding for higher education by $181 million to help close a $10 billion state budget shortfall.

Since then, the statewide average total academic charges for a student taking 15 semester credit hours at a public university has increased by 83 percent, according to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board.

De Bruyn defended the increases, saying that student costs prior to 2003 were low. He said the increases have been necessary to maintain the technology and resources needed to keep Texas students competitive.

A top higher education official sees things differently.

“We are getting to a point where I think access will be endangered,” Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes said about repeated statewide tuition increases.

“We need to fundamentally rethink everything we do in higher education because the current model is unsustainable,” he added. “We can’t just keep raising tuition and fees even in relatively small increments of two and three percent forever.”

Paredes said UTEP and other border institutions have been sensitive to their student bodies and have “not increased tuition as traumatically as others” and he worries universities throughout the state are nearing a point of unaffordability.

He said universities and community colleges have to become more cost efficient by developing additional blended and online classes, making sure faculty teaching loads are up to snuff, getting students to graduate faster and more aggressively pushing models in which students spend their first two years at a community college and their last two years at the university.

“We’re looking at cost efficiencies in the relatively easy areas like centralizing purchasing and outsourcing some services, but we need to take a look at how you make delivery of instruction more cost efficient including looking at faculty teaching loads,” Paredes said.

UTEP sophomore Kayla Cardenas, 22, had a similar perspective.

Cardenas said the planned tuition increase will make it more difficult for her to make ends meet. Her parents make too much for her to qualify for financial aid and not enough to cover the costs of her education, so she works a part-time job to pay for school.

“It’s already hard enough for me to go to school right now,” Cardenas said, adding that her entire paychecks go toward paying for her classes. “I just feel that there are so many other ways they can cut and save money instead of raising tuition.”

The proposed tuition increase was voted on and approved by an advisory committee of 12 students and six members of UTEP’s faculty and staff. The university then hosted a pair of student forums and an online forum, in which a total of about 100 students participated.

Pablo Padilla, UTEP’s student government association president and co-chair of the committee, said that while some students on the committee have caught flak for the decision, the increase is needed so that the university does not lose momentum in light of state budget cuts.

Padilla, a senior at UTEP who graduates in May, will not be around by the time increases would take effect.

“As a senior I’m looking at it an investment into my degree,” he said. “It won’t affect me right now, per se, however in the future if a tuition increase does not pass and the revenue stops for UTEP and growth is stunted it will affect the quality of education for the students that I mentor right now and I try to help and eventually that I will work with in the future.”

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