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Higher education leaders entered the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature expecting some dark days. Two-and-a-half months in, they're now focused on warding off a perfect storm.
In addition to potential state funding cuts, which are being discussed like they're a virtual certainty in the Capitol, schools are staring down efforts to freeze tuition and slash federal funding for higher education. If all three happen, the universities' three biggest sources of money would be reduced or frozen for 2018.
That's a scary thought to advocates of public higher education, who warn that Texas' need for strong state universities will only grow in the coming years. Tuition, state funding and federal cash make up a combined 75 percent of Texas public university revenue.
"All alumni and business leaders in our state should be up in arms and outraged about these proposals being considered," said Will O'Hara, co-interim director of the Texas Exes alumni group for the University of Texas at Austin.
Persuading elected officials to reverse course could be difficult, however. There's less money for the state to spend overall this year than in previous sessions. There are also other pressing needs to compete with, like reforming the child protective services and foster care systems. And many lawmakers are frustrated with what they view as a lack of fiscal discipline among the state's universities.
Average tuition has climbed 147 percent in Texas over the past 15 years. And most of the state's universities have increased tuition since 2015, when the Legislature added $2 billion to the budget for higher education.
The scrutiny is especially pronounced in the Senate, where presiding officer Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named halting tuition growth one of his top 20 priorities for 2017. Patrick, a Republican, has thrown his support behind Senate Bill 19, which would impose a four-year freeze on tuition increases.
Meanwhile, senators are expected to vote Tuesday on their proposed budget. If they pass it as currently written, which is highly likely, they will send the House a bill that would impose hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of higher education cuts. Each school would face a loss of 6 percent to 10 percent of its state funding in the Senate plan.