Higher education saw appropriation increases in funding and grants this legislative session, though other key legislation affecting universities like funding for construction projects did not pass.
With the second special session scheduled to begin today and higher education absent from the agenda, local school officials are beginning to navigate the legislation that will affect their campuses next academic year.
State funding for higher education increased by 4.4 percent this session, increasing funds from $15.1 billion to $15.7 billion in the approved general appropriations bill. Locally, the University of North Texas was allocated nearly $154 million for 2014, and $154.8 million for 2015, while Texas Woman’s University was allocated $70.6 million for 2014 and $70.8 million for 2015. Additionally, the UNT System will receive $3.4 million for both years, and UNT Dallas will receive roughly $16.1 million both years.
“I think obviously the first thing that comes to mind for everyone is money — because the money matters, unfortunately,” said Dominic Chavez, senior director of external relations for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. “Funding increased a little more than 4 percent. That’s significant. To be in the positive and have the infusion of more money in higher education overall is good.”
Richard Nicholas, TWU’s vice president for student life, said the increase was necessary for the university given the growth trends.
In a separate bill, the legislature passed appropriating an additional $1 million to UNT Dallas for “new university innovation,” but Gov. Rick Perry struck a line-item veto for this and five other university special projects totaling $5.25 million. In a veto proclamation, Perry said special item funding for state universities was a bad idea and not the “best use of hard-earned tax dollars.”
“It’s a small university with a small budget, and so we are disappointed,” UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson said. “But there were not very many new initiatives in the budget like that, and Gov. Perry was very even handed and addressed several of them.”
Funding to the Texas Grant Program also increased this session by 25 percent, as well as other programs for low-income students. This allows TWU to allocate about $1 million worth of financial aid to incoming students, Nicholas said.
“That’s very important, given the kinds of students who we serve, many of whom need the additional financial support,” he said.
Another bill that could help students will require schools to offer fixed tuition price plans for incoming undergraduate students. The UNT System Board of Regents approved both UNT and UNT Dallas working toward creating this plans, set to be implemented in the fall of 2014.
“We already knew that we had a year to work out an appropriate plan,” Jackson said. “I feel confident that we’ll have a meaningful plan available for students at both UNT and UNTD.”
Committees have begun to meet on the plans, and at this point the system is not sure if the plan will be the same at both campuses. At TWU, though, work on the new legislation has not yet started.
“We monitored that as the legislation came through, but now that the requirement has passed, we’ll produce a plan,” Nicholas said.
The largest disappointment for university leaders was that the legislature failed to reach a compromise on Tuition Revenue Bonds for campus construction projects, costing TWU and UNT millions of dollars. While this could still be called in the special session, it was surprising since, overall, the legislature agreed the TRBs needed to be passed, Chavez said.
“That was clearly something that there was pretty strong consensus on doing, but there was obvious disagreement on it,” he said. “I think if there was one [surprising bill that did not pass] from a higher education perspective, not a coordinating board perspective, TRBs have got to be on the top of that list.”
Even without the funding for construction, Jackson said the strong funding support of higher education in other ways was significant.
“It was a good session for higher education, and in that context we’ve watched state officials for the past six months work to invest in higher education, to restore funding,” he said.
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.