One ranking UT happy not to be leading in Texas: tuition, fees


Highlights

A&M-Central Texas in Killeen is the cheapest of 38 public universities in Texas.

Endowments, personnel costs, required tuition breaks — and politics — influence tuition rates.

True or false: Tuition and fees at Sam Houston State University, the University of Houston, Texas State University and four other public schools in the state exceed the sticker price for the University of Texas at Austin.

The answer, surprisingly, is true. Then again, maybe it’s not so surprising.

UT-Dallas is the most expensive of the state’s 38 public universities, with tuition and fees totaling $5,903 for the fall 2016 semester, according to data provided to the American-Statesman by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. UT-Austin’s price tag for academic charges was $5,046, eighth-highest. Texas A&M University was fourth-highest at $5,225.

The bargain of the bunch? A&M-Central Texas in Killeen, at $2,906. The statewide average was $4,374.

The figures reflect the average academic charges to undergraduates from Texas enrolled in 15 credits per semester. Housing, food and books are extra.

Boards of regents and administrators take many overlapping factors into account when setting tuition, including the makeup of the student body, the size of the school’s endowment, personnel costs and legislatively mandated tuition breaks for veterans and others who qualify, said David Gardner, deputy commissioner for academic planning and policy and chief academic officer for the coordinating board.

In addition, he said, some schools have boosted tuition in part to fund programs that help students graduate on time, saving them money in the long run. And financial aid helps to defray costs, meaning that many students don’t pay the sticker price.

“It gets very complicated,” Gardner said.

Political calculations are also part of the mix. And as the flagship university in the capital city, UT-Austin faces more scrutiny than the other schools.

For example, in 2012 the UT System Board of Regents, under pressure from then-Gov. Rick Perry, rejected a proposal to raise in-state tuition by 2.6 percent for undergraduates at Austin. The regents, all of whom were Perry appointees, allowed most of the other academic and health campuses in the UT System to raise academic charges at that time.

Then, in 2014, the regents dropped a plan to approve a 2.1 percent increase for the Austin campus after Perry called for a freeze; they instead dipped into endowment funds to shore up the flagship’s revenues.

UT-Austin had the highest academic charges, $2,721, in 2003, when lawmakers granted boards of regents tuition-setting authority. Since then, the flagship has notched the lowest percentage increase, 85 percent.

“We strive for excellence and also accessibility to fulfill our mission of creating opportunity for students from all backgrounds and regions in Texas,” UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves said in a statement to the Statesman.

Sam Houston State, with the fifth-highest academic charges at $5,185, has consistently ranked near the bottom in state appropriations, and it lacks the sizable endowments that UT-Austin and A&M enjoy, said Kris Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the school in Huntsville. “With lower state support, tuition and fees have been increased to cover operational costs and infrastructure expenses for a university that has been experiencing high growth rates in enrollment,” she said.

Matthew Flores, a spokesman for sixth-highest Texas State, said its “operational costs per student are among the lowest in the state and the university is among the state’s most efficient public universities. Texas State is achieving this at a time when enrollment is growing rapidly and the institution is responding to the state’s call to create more nationally recognized research universities.”

Students at UT-Dallas, with the highest academic charges, major overwhelmingly in high-cost programs in the science, technology, business and engineering fields. “We also have distinguished faculty and conduct high-level research that competes meaningfully with larger public universities in the state,” said Katherine Morales, a UT-Dallas spokeswoman.

And like a number of schools, UT-Dallas has flat-rate tuition, meaning that courses taken beyond 15 credits are essentially free. The school guarantees all incoming freshmen that their tuition will remain the same for four years. Such provisions are intended to encourage timely graduation.

At the University of North Texas, whose $5,516 price tag ranked second-highest, slightly more than 10 percent of undergraduates have taken advantage of its flat-rate plan, which included higher tuition to help the university pursue its goal of becoming a top-tier research institution, said Bob Brown, vice president for finance and administration.

A&M-Central Texas had the lowest charges for a variety of reasons, said Marc A. Nigliazzo, the school’s president. For one thing, it’s strictly an upper-division school, offering programs for juniors, seniors and graduate students, many of whom have transferred from community colleges in the area. If freshmen and sophomores were part of the mix, services and staffing — and therefore operating costs — would increase.

It’s also a young university, just completing its eighth year, and its faculty pay doesn’t match that of the flagships or most regional schools. What’s more, keeping tuition affordable is a top priority for a school near Fort Hood that serves many active or retired military members and their relatives, Nigliazzo said.

The Texas Senate approved Senate Bill 19 in April that would have frozen tuition at public universities for two years and sharply restricted increases thereafter. The measure never emerged from a House committee.



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