Kel Seliger is a Texas state senator representing District 31. He has served as the chairman of the higher education committee since 2012. Recently, Seliger led a drive to hold universities accountable for rising tuition costs. He came to UTD to talk to a number of groups as part of his goal to reach out to university students. The Mercury had a chance to sit down with him and discuss his push for lower tuition costs and his experience in office.
What should be the most pressing concern for students at UTD in relation to the future of higher education?
There are so many things that students should be concerned with because they are very largely shaping their future. And they need to determine if universities as a community reflect their values and their interests and if they are properly preparing them. Students also want to be concerned about costs.
So based on that, you and the Lieutenant Governor released a letter on March 4 addressed to the presidents of Texas universities, criticizing them for tuition hikes. What prompted you to author that letter?
You did, and your parents did, and people all over the state. And tuition is expensive. The most expensive tuition fees in the state of Texas are right here at University of Texas at Dallas. One of the least expensive within a four year university is probably Sul Ross. Sul Ross is only about $6,000 a year. The question I always ask of people is: What should your tuition be? For the tuition that you pay, look at where you go to school. Look at the faculty they hire. The point is that what about the young people who can’t afford University of Texas at Dallas? And so how do we address that?
One way is formula funding. And I’ve always been a fan of increasing the formula funding that goes to all the universities. And Texas Grants is our largest grant program that I think is something over a three-quarters of a billion dollars. We in the legislature can control the cost of tuition based upon what we put in the funding formula and what we put in Texas Grants. The return that we get on those monies is tremendous, I believe. At the same time, look at everybody else who operates on state funds and is dependent on state funds. So there are always sort of competitive decisions that must be made.
How can the Texas legislature make funding for state universities sustainable, especially so that students do not experience tuition hikes.
The state has to make spending decisions. And higher ed is one of those. We can make the conscious decision. Universities are obligated to watch those costs, and how they spend that money. It’s a good question because University of Texas system has all the money in the world. Midwestern State does not. Stephen F. Austin does not.
So how do we address that sort of thing? And I’m an advocate for putting more money in, but we’ve got to watch tuition and things like that and that’s why my bill, in the last session, was for performance-based funding increases. For increases above inflation, we have metrics to determine if the university deserve more money. Nowadays, spending more money to do things the same way, to the same degree, is no longer adequate. Universities are great communities, and they do great things, socially they’re wonderful institutions, the people have a right to deserve a product, and so it’s set metrics like four-year graduation rates, five-year graduation rates, time to complete 30 hours or 60 hours or things like that. If you want more money qualitatively, offer it above inflation.
So do you propose moving away from enrollment-based funding?
No, you can’t. Because you have to use some sort of formula that treats people the same way.
And you’ve also proposed giving state lawmakers the power to regulate tuition again.
Along those lines, that’s what performance-based tuition is. It’s important to keep in mind that tuition, when the legislature controlled tuition from the period 1999 to 2003, things went up more than from 2003 to 2013, during when it was deregulated. So here you are, a prominent citizen in my district, and you come to me and you say we can do so much more at West Texas A&M or University of Texas Permian Basin if we need more money and all my friends think so and you’re my senator and we expect you to do that for these very worthy universities.
Well, now you’re increasing tuition because of political pressure. And so I don’t know, you have to be careful that the regulated environment is a rational one, and is not simply done by whim or political influence.
How does this impact tuition raises or cuts at the university? Because you mentioned when tuition was regulated, it was different.
Cost will very much be regulated by the institutions itself. You don’t want the legislature to go in and operate those universities. Determine what educational offerings they can and can’t make and determine what’s a waste. You have so many smart people at a university. If they do a good job, we can set down some parameters, legislatively. At the end of the day, it’s going to be up to the universities and the boards of regents to operate officially and make sure the people of the state of Texas get their money’s worth, however subjective that may be.
What about the quality of education? How can you ensure that the quality of education is maintained at Texas universities while decreasing student tuition?
It’s not up to the legislature to determine the quality, it’s a self-regulating thing. When I say self-regulating, it’s regulated all over the place. So you graduate with a degree in math and engineering and Toyota won’t hire a single member of your graduating class, but they’re dying to get to University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley. The marketplace will determine to a great degree that value, but the marketplace is also communities and businesses all over the state of Texas.
Are we getting something as we have an educated populace? Are we getting responsible, productive people? It is, once again, it’s just almost a philosophical thing, do we have quality education. And in Texas, absolutely we do, in places people don’t even think about it. I won’t be able to tell the day you graduate if you’re worth a darn. But I will find out as time goes on and what your productivity has been influenced by University of Texas at Dallas. This is University of Texas at Dallas and so betting people would wager on your success, your productivity and your contribution.