By Joseph Hood
Nearly one in every three dollars that a student pays to attend a Texas university goes to pay academic fees, yet fees lack the statutory clarity necessary for proper application and adherence. The confusion and even duplicity contained within the code creates an interpretive environment where the proper legal place of one in every three dollars that students pay is in serious doubt. Before a discussion of affordability can begin, Texas must reform its fee laws to better define and refine the proper place of fees.
Texas fee law is an intimidating tome. Just Chapter 54 of the Texas Education Code mentions “fee” or “fees” some 1470 times.
It is also confusing. Section 55.16 has two near-identical sets of subsections that appear to both be amendments passed in different chapters “by Acts 2001, 77th Leg.” In at least one place in the section, the two subsection (d)s have very different meanings, with subsection (d) amended by chapter 769 reading that a board “shall” “accumulate all mandatory fees or charges provided for by this section” and subsection (d) amended by chapter 1432 reading that a board “may” do the same. The fact that these conflicting subsections have stood side by side for 7 consecutive legislative sessions is a testament to fee law opaqueness overlooked by legislators, confusion that universities have had to subsequently interpret.
The code is littered with exceptions to rules and legislatively created fees, despite the authority already given to, and often claimed by, university governing boards to “fix each rental, rate, charge, or fee that the board has authority under [title 3] to fix in an amount determined to be necessary to pay or provide, for each activity or service, all associated capital costs” from §55.16.*
For example, while the TEC outlines regulations for student services fees in §54.503, subsection (h) states that §54.503 “does not apply to The University of Texas at Austin or a component institution of the University of Houston System,” and then proceeds to create separate student services fees regulations for the respective systems in sections 54.5061 and 54.513.
Different sections of the code create nearly identical Student Fee Advisory boards for different universities. Specific fees have been created for a statue to honor Cesar Chavez at the University of Texas at Austin (§54.5135), Washington D.C. internships (§54.5134), and Environmental Services at Southwest Texas State University (§54.5111).
These statutes seem unnecessary and overly burdensome. Rather than give universities permission to levy a fee, they actually restrict their ability, setting parameters around what the fee can and cannot do. These are the effects of further fee legislation: regulation rather than permission, restriction rather than freedom. Legislators must therefore decide if they want to restrict or free a university’s ability to level fees. Currently the law is doing both, creating a confusing atmosphere for both the universities trying to create fees and manage budgets, and for the student trying to understand their rights under fee law.
* Note that this particular part of the statute was taken from subsection (c) “as amended by Acts 2001, 77th Leg., ch. 769, Sec. 13” and not from subsection (c) “as amended by Acts 2001, 77th Leg., ch.1432, Sec. 2.” The choice was purely preferential, but it does show the ridiculousness of the nearly identical subsections.