The University of Texas System is an extraordinary institution. It educates more than 200,000 students, mostly from Texas, and it conducts an enormous amount of groundbreaking research. The cumulative impact of the education of young people and the research output of the thousands of brilliant faculty is prodigious and valuable. I could not be prouder of the University of Texas diploma on my wall, representing as it does not only knowledge and thinking skills gained but also the symbol of the four joyous and challenging years I spent growing as a person and learning about myself and others. What a gift the founders of Texas gave our state in establishing “a University of the first class.” It is a special privilege for me to serve on my university system’s board of regents (although the views expressed here are mine personally and not necessarily those of other board members).
Over the 35 years since I graduated, many measures of the quality of UT-Austin have grown dramatically. But tuition has also increased — by more than 80 percent over just the past eight years. I am forever grateful to the university and to the state of Texas for giving me the opportunity to be able to pay my own way through school and graduate almost debt free. Today’s students are not typically so lucky.
It is fashionable to blame higher tuition on legislative tight-fistedness, but the facts simply do not support that charge. Nationally, state support for higher education has roughly kept pace with general inflation over the past 20 years. Some pushing for higher student tuition tend to point out that state support of higher education has dropped substantially as a share of total revenues. That is true, but only because educational costs have increased much faster than inflation and federally funded research budgets have grown substantially, making state support naturally account for a much smaller portion of the entire budget.
At UT-Austin, generous philanthropists and state-granted lands have endowed the university with extraordinary additional pillars of support that other institutions could only dream about. Even intercollegiate athletics, often a loss-maker, provide meaningful support for academic programs. Finally, a little-noticed change in the admissions practice at UT-Austin is shifting many slots previously allocated to Texas residents, who pay $10,000 per year, to nonresidents, who pay $33,000 per year.
During the past 10 years, after inflation, investment income and university funds available for operations (i.e., over and above capital expenditures) have grown by $2,100 per student. State support has dropped by only $1,300 per student, partly due to nonresident students not being subsidized by the state. Roughly two-thirds of state funding cuts are either tied to or offset by increased nonresident tuition. The $3,300-per-year tuition increase families are already paying is simply not justified by reductions in state support — and nor is possibility of further increases.
The public is told by some that holding the line on tuition will imperil much-needed student programs, hold back research or result in a “dumbing down” of the university. The actual data demonstrate that this is a fundamentally misleading position. Instructional revenues are going up, even without tuition increases. State funding cuts are frequently cited by those asking for more money from students — despite the negative consequences of even higher tuition on student access. Yes, there are plenty of students willing to pay the tuition at UT even if it increased further. But is that what the founders of Texas had in mind for their “University of the first class”? The Texas Constitution does not famously promise its citizens a “University of the upper class.”
We can earn financial support from other parts of society than students facing an uncertain job market. We can enhance learning productivity, better reward our faculty and have an even bigger positive influence on the world by harnessing technology even more innovatively than we do now. We do not need to increase tuition.
It is a competitive world. I love the University of Texas too much to see others take the lead. I expect the Texas Legislature, the University of Texas System and our many dedicated, inspired faculty, staff and administrators will continue to work together to find ways actually to cut students’ outlay and increase quality of learning so that UT students may be even more blessed by the UT opportunity than I have been.
Alex Cranberg sits on the University of Texas System Board of Regents.
Ever since I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I have fought to keep tuition costs for the flagship campus affordable to all seeking the same invaluable education that I received. For almost 25 years, I have devoted my time to enhancing philanthropic support for UT-Austin. I have served on the Development Board, the Chancellor’s Council and the Longhorn Foundation, to name a few. All of these organizations raise funds for the university, helping provide needed resources to increase access, improve opportunities and heighten the level of excellence across the board.
At a time when state funding for higher education has plummeted to record lows, philanthropy of all kinds — whether it be endowments, estate gifts, scholarships, art, real estate or other cash or in-kind gifts — has an increasingly significant impact on being able to deliver quality education to Texas students. But it’s not realistic or sufficient to maintain a world-class university over the long term.
In 1985, state funding accounted for 47 percent of UT-Austin’s annual operating budget. Today, state funds account for 13 percent of the budget. During the same period, gifts and endowments have risen from 3 percent to 9 percent of the budget — an important increase but not nearly enough to make up for the gap left from a lack of state funding.
In order for our tier-one institution to attract world-class faculty, students and researchers, we must have an appropriate funding mix that includes tuition, philanthropy and state funding so that we can sustain the mission of the university without unnecessarily burdening one group.
In a data-driven and carefully considered request for an increase in tuition this spring, UT-Austin identified a need for funding essential programs aimed at improving student success. Every dollar of the requested increase was focused on increasing graduation rates, through the course transformation program and changes in undergraduate advising, among other approaches. One of the most important ways we can reduce the tuition burden on students and their families is by helping them graduate sooner, thereby reducing overall student obligations. But instead, the decision was made to freeze tuition.
Declining state support is forcing our flagship institutions to make increasingly difficult choices that hinder their ability to attract and keep the very best faculty and student talent. As the chairman of the Faculty Council, Alan Friedman, said when the tuition freeze was announced in May, it “makes it harder to recruit, retain and properly reward top faculty. … It feels like an assault on the very notion of being a first-class institution.”
UT-Austin has soldiered on, like many of our state entities that have to “do more with less.” And, increasingly, what the university has done has been tremendous. In fact, the recent Academic Ranking of World Universities placed UT-Austin 35th among its global peers. Yet we cannot continue to underfund our institutions and hope for the best. UT-Austin is a public treasure in which the people of Texas have invested for generations and from which they derive tremendous benefit.
No one ever wants to raise tuition. It’s never a popular thing to do, particularly during a time of economic duress. But sometimes doing what is right isn’t always popular. The decision to request an increase in tuition is not made lightly, but is made out of the necessity to protect the value of a priceless product.
The people of Texas deserve the best. I pledge to continue to give — and ask others to do the same — but philanthropic giving follows excellence. The institutions within our university systems are public treasures. If we continue to starve our flagship institutions, we are damaging one of our greatest public resources, limiting our state’s ability to attract the brightest minds and millions in R&D and shortchanging Texas’ future.
Melinda Hill Perrin is a former chairwoman of UT-Austin’s Development Board.