AUSTIN – The University of Texas System is unequivocally committed to The University of Texas at Austin and ensuring its place as a university of the first class for the people of Texas, the nation, and the world. It is in this context that I offer the following perspective.
As chancellor of one of America’s largest public university systems, I was deeply troubled by recent national headlines indicating that college student debts had reached the $1 trillion mark. Some reports suggest that 94 percent of students currently borrow money to pay for their education, compared to 45 percent nearly 20 years ago. Last year’s average debt was $23,300 after graduation, but in many cases it was a staggering $50,000 or more, leaving graduates to start life’s journey with enormous debt that will hobble them for decades, and in some cases without a degree.
Tuition nationally increased 72 percent from 2001 to 2011, largely because state funding for public universities dropped 24 percent, forcing students to borrow more money. The trend of consistently raising tuition to counter reductions from other funding sources is not sustainable for students and parents. This issue is a national one and has received considerable attention by President Obama and many federal and state leaders. It is not going away.
So I was very pleased when The University of Texas System Board of Regents decided to hold resident undergraduate tuition at current levels for the next two years at UT Austin while also allocating $6.6 million per year from alternative revenue sources—an amount equivalent to my proposed tuition recommendation. (The Regents approved tuition increases for out-of-state undergraduate and graduate students at UT Austin.) The Board was able to direct special funds to UT Austin from the Available University Fund (AUF), thanks primarily to oil and gas revenue produced from UT’s West Texas lands and very positive investment returns this year. It was a win-win-win decision. Families were relieved not to see an increase in tuition bills, UT Austin received equivalent funding, and the Board bent the rising cost curve of higher education.
Like UT Austin President Bill Powers, the Board of Regents and I enthusiastically share the goal of making UT Austin the best public research university in the country, and we firmly believe that we are providing the resources to demonstrate our commitment. Beyond simply addressing tuition requests, the Board has provided more than $500 million in new funding for groundbreaking, transformational initiatives that could help propel UT Austin to greater heights.
Bending the higher education cost curve down requires innovation, creativity, greater adaptability, and smarter change, not constantly defaulting to increasing tuition and fee rates on the backs of students. I know that UT institutions are working hard to implement a variety of cost-containment, efficiency, and productivity goals as outlined in my Framework for Advancing Excellence Across The University of Texas System, all of which will contribute to keeping costs down while providing students with an excellent learning experience.
The future of UT Austin is incredibly exciting: a new engineering center, a new medical school, redesigned undergraduate courses, better integration of online and blended learning, and groundbreaking research that will change the world. I view this as the greatest time ever to lead a university, given the opportunity to innovate, and having access to unique financial resources that many other public universities do not have. It is unfortunate that criticism over a tuition increase that represents less than .3 percent of an annual operating budget overshadowed an otherwise celebratory and important moment in the life of one of our nation’s finest institutions.
The University of Texas, its Regents, System administration, legislators, alumni, families, and philanthropists all share the responsibility to provide funding for these UT Austin advancements. We must all work together to lessen the debt students will carry into their futures – futures that we promised them would be better and brighter if they earned a University of Texas degree. We should hold our heads up high with Texas pride and rest assured that UT Austin and all of the institutions in the UT System will receive support to ascend to higher levels of greatness.
Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., is chancellor of The University of Texas System.