The following editorial published in “The Dallas Morning News” on July 15:
It’s true that not every kid has to go to college to be successful in this society. We also know that a college degree vastly improves the chances of bettering lives, but thousands of students simply can’t afford to go without racking up crippling debt.
So when the flagship campus of the University of Texas at Austin joined other universities in extending free tuition to middle-income families over the past week, there was cause for celebration. We saw it as an important further acknowledgment that the soaring cost of college is a problem not just for the poor.
And if this state is going to keep its economic engine ignited, it must produce more well-educated workers. Studies show college graduates earn twice as much as workers with only a high school diploma. But in Dallas County, less than a third of public school graduates will complete college within six years.
Universities have to do more to help.
UT has promised to do its part. Starting in fall 2020, it will cover full tuition for any in-state (including transfer) undergraduate student whose family income totals $65,000 or less. The old marker had been $30,000.
Regents smartly voted to use $160 million from the state’s Permanent University Fund – a state endowment for UT and Texas A&M from oil and gas revenue – for the assistance program. A&M has provided free tuition to students from families with income of $60,000 or less since 2011.
At UT, it means the number of students getting free tuition will double. The university estimates 8,600 students – about a quarter of its undergraduate students – will get a break on an average of $10,314 a year in tuition and fees.
We like that the allocation will create an endowment in which the money is invested and interest and earnings are used to fund the tuition costs in perpetuity.
UT President Greg Fenves told us recently that one of his major goals is to continue to attract talented and diverse students to his campus. This move is a big step toward accomplishing that.
It’s important, though, to point out that this isn’t a totally free ride. It doesn’t cover housing and other living costs, which average about $17,000 a year for the 80% of the student body that lives off campus.
And we worry that a bigger pool of students for which UT is a possibility has the potential to make it even harder to get into UT.
Still, making UT more accessible and affordable to more Texas kids is good for the entire state.
We’ve argued before that we don’t buy that just offering free stuff is a smart way to run an economy. The costs have to be paid by someone – not to mention that the escalating cost of tuition still needs to be addressed.
And when tuition falls away as an issue, it will be incumbent on the students to put in the hard work required for their own success. That means graduating and becoming financially secure and productive members of their communities. That path will now be clearer for more at UT.