Capitol Chronicle

The cost of tuition: for the tax-cut mob, the learning curve is long and expensive

It's easy to feel sympathy for the university administrators caught in the whiplash last week over their approval of tuition increases for the new year. Beginning in January, they had been told by the governor to cut their expenses across the board, and additional cuts were subsequently mandated by the Republican leadership's no-growth biennial budget. In the wake of layoffs and cutbacks, UT-Austin has been reduced to organizing voluntary litter cleanups -- "Let a Hundred Garbage Bags Bloom!" -- to replace the maintenance staff sent packing by government penury. The word on campus is that faculty recruitment is down not only because there's no funding for new positions, but because so few senior faculty members can afford to retire on their measly pensions.

Just wait 'til they sign up for Medicare.

The escape hatch opened by the 78th Legislature, of course, was the seductively titled "tuition deregulation" -- which, like telecom and utility "deregulation," is supposed to save us from the oppressive burdens of community ownership. In the absence of adequate funding from the public exchequer, Texas universities would be liberated from direct legislative oversight of pricing and be allowed to charge, more or less, whatever the market will bear. Various boards of regents moved to do exactly that -- only to have their newly slack leashes abruptly yanked by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who declared that he had been misled concerning the size of the anticipated increases. (UT System Chancellor Mark Yudof was singled out for that lecture, although most schools across the state are raising prices.)

House Speaker Tom Craddick responded that he didn't know what the fuss was all about. He told a Dallas audience that the Lege (a body upon which he has some small influence) didn't give universities enough funding, so they had no choice but to raise prices -- and to build in some overage for the underprivileged. (Why Texas should be reduced to this ass-backward way of supporting the common good is the subject for another day.) After some public bluster, UT regents went ahead and passed the increases, only politely leaving next fall's boost pending until the Lege could convene a committee meeting.

The Limestone Tragedy

One suspects this is all sound and fury, signifying very little, and that come January, beleaguered professors can still look forward to a whopping 3% raise next fall. Whatever rhetoric Dewhurst might spend on the matter now, he and the Senate signed the devil's deal with Craddick and the House in May, and November is a little late for regrets. The Lege's interim higher-ed committee may harrumph and tsk-tsk a bit next month over rising prices, but with public school finance still looming and no tax-less solution to that conundrum in sight, funding for higher education will just have to wait in line. The lingering question is what might have prompted the lite guv to bark after the moon had set, and one surmises that in the diminishing wake of re-redistricting, the e-mails from outraged UT legacy parents had finally reached critical mass.

However short-sighted the public policy, there's an undeniable satisfaction in hearing the outraged wails of those accustomed to riding the public gravy train while excoriating their neighbors walking the public roads. When they call for dismantling the welfare state and insist that we can all get along just fine without fully funded public institutions, they never mean the institutions on which they rely. In the tuition controversy, my favorite complaint is that of the university-based Young Conservatives of Texas, who fought deregulation even in the face of their hero Craddick, and now denounce as "socialism" and "Marxism" the notion that higher-income families will have to pay more in order for the universities to create scholarship programs for low-income Texans (an iron financial logic to which even Craddick defers). I'm reminded of Mel Brooks' 2000-Year-Old Man, and his sage distinction between comedy and tragedy. "Comedy is when you fall down and break your leg. Tragedy is when I get a hangnail."

Au contraire, comrades: "Socialism" is the time-honored and wholly American notion of a democratic and publicly funded educational system. At the university level, it is one of the singular U.S. accomplishments of the post-World War II era, and our national and state leaders are, all in the name of "smaller government" and "fiscal responsibility," steadily proceeding as eagerly as they can to undo it.

What You Want

One wonders just what the conservatives expected to happen when No New Taxes was magically but inevitably transmogrified into Let the Users Pay Their Way. Toll roads, fees for services, and higher tuition follow as the night the day, and it won't do to cry foul when one's own ox is gored. All across Texas, the Divine Right of Longhorns to calve more Longhorns is threatened, and perhaps at least some of that distress will filter down to the ravages against other, less sacred public institutions like health care and breathable air.

Also hidden beneath the narrow public controversy over student tuition is the bigger secret of university life: that the system now exists as a massive public subsidy operation for private corporations, under which basic research is underwritten both through direct grants and the permanent stable of underpaid and insecure graduate researchers. In engineering, in medicine, especially in all forms of technology, even in "management," research and development are sustained and funded by taxpayers, for decades if necessary, precisely to that moment when there's a profit to be made -- at which point the whole business is handed over to the private sector for exploitation and accumulation.

Nowhere is that story more apparent than in the computer industry, for which decades worth of research and development funded by the feds and (successfully) managed by the academy was inevitably cut loose for private profit. All so that a generation of libertarians could buy tax-free tchotchkes on eBay and send each other tax-free e-mails excoriating the government and defending "entrepreneurs" like Bill Gates from its oppressive tentacles.

Somebody should definitely raise all their tuitions. You can't always get what you want, but eventually you have to pay for what you get. end story

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higher education, tuition, David Dewhurst, Tom Craddick, Mark Yudof, Young Conservatives of Texas, Mel Brooks

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