AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — With rising tuition rates squeezing college students statewide, University of Texas President Bill Powers said Thursday that the state could help schools ease their burden with more consistent funding for higher education.
Delivering his annual state of the university speech for the nearly-50,000 student campus, Powers briefly mentioned Gov. Rick Perry's recent proposal to allow freshmen to lock in a tuition rate for four years.
Powers said he is "heartened" by the conversation sparked by Perry's idea and the goal of graduating students in four years, but he stopped short of endorsing the Republican governor's proposal that so far offers no specifics.
Texas should explore ways to help students graduate on time and help their families cope with the cost of higher education, Powers said.
"This is the thrust of Gov. Perry's ideas of locking tuition rates on a rolling four-year basis. It can also encourage students to earn their degrees quickly," Powers said.
State lawmakers could help by providing universities with predictable budgets, Powers said. The Republican-dominated Legislature cut nearly $1 billion from higher education in 2011, with nearly $92 million taken from the University of Texas.
"Predictability and planning are also important for our campus, so the state should also show its commitment by providing predictable revenue streams for the same four years," Powers said. "Predictability aids planning, and planning promotes efficiency."
The 2013 Legislature convenes in January. Perry has already said he will not sign a budget that increases state spending and ordered agencies to look for ways to cut costs by 10 percent.
Graduating on time will help students keep costs down, Powers said. The university graduates about 52 percent of its students in four years, and Powers has set a goal of 70 percent by 2017.
"To lower the cost of a UT degree for students and their families, nothing will do more than graduating in four years," Powers said.
Perry has pushed universities to rein in costs, calling on them to develop $10,000 bachelor's degree programs and demanding greater efficiency on state campuses, moves that have caused friction with some administrators and faculty who worry about quality.
Texas college students have faced significant tuition spikes in recent years. A Dallas Morning News analysis found the average student at a state university pays 55 percent more than a decade ago.
The state set tuition caps until 2003, which helped make college more affordable. But faced with a significant budget gap that year, lawmakers cut state money to universities and allowed campuses to set their own tuition rates.
In May, University of Texas System regents approved a two-year tuition hike at most of the system's nine schools, but ordered the flagship Austin campus to freeze tuition for most students. Undergraduate resident students at the Austin campus pay $4,896 per semester.
Powers publicly criticized the freeze at the time, saying it hampered the school's ability to plan for the future. Much of the nearly $26 million the university hoped to raise was to be used for improving academic advising and adding courses to help more students graduate in four years.
In his speech, Powers also reaffirmed his commitment to diversity in the student body. A lawsuit challenging the university's use of race as one element of its admissions policy is set to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next month.
"Our campus needs to be a more inclusive community that welcomes all people regardless of their race, religion, family status, and sexual orientation," Powers said. "UT is a place where everyone should feel welcome."