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Hispanic students may have been kept away from Texas’ public research universities after the Legislature allowed state colleges to set their own tuition prices, according to a study published this month in The Annals, a journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The study comes as Texas officials appear hard-pressed to meet 15-year enrollment targets for Hispanic students. The findings also touch on broader issues in Texas and among those seeking to encourage Latino enrollment in colleges nationally.

The report, by two Vanderbilt University scholars, Stella Flores and Justin Shepherd, examined Texas tuition policy after the Legislature in 2003 deregulated college prices. Before then, state lawmakers set tuition themselves and generally kept the rates the same across the state. The deregulation policy put university boards in charge of tuition and set few limits on the amount a college could charge.

Flores's and Shepherd’s findings are rather simple, though they use a complicated process to try to account for what might have happened in a future that didn’t take place. They compare Texas colleges to other states to try to see what the deregulated policies did to enrollment at seven public research universities in Texas.

As they see it: Tuition at comparable research universities increased more in Texas than in other states in the first years of deregulation, 2003 to 2006. During the same period, the number of Hispanic students who enrolled at those universities was lower than would otherwise have been expected. The research stops in 2007 because Florida, a key comparison state, deregulated tuition in 2007.

According to the paper, the seven universities would have enrolled 9 percent more Hispanic first-time students apiece in those years, had deregulation-related tuition increases not occurred.

Michael McLendon, dean of the education school at Southern Methodist University, a private college in Texas, edited the special edition of The Annals that included this paper.

“Up until now, we didn’t have a clear sense of the consequences of these actions on access by different student populations to postsecondary education – the Flores study provides disturbing clarity,” he said in an email. “Her findings, that the 2003 tuition decentralization initiative in Texas suppressed enrollments in higher education among Hispanics, should give pause to policy makers in other states: simply passing the political buck to campuses for increases in tuition appears to be utterly counterproductive to states’ efforts in improving college participation and attainment."

The paper finds that the negative effects on Hispanic enrollment do not show up for black or low-income students. Indeed, the paper detects no negative effect on the enrollment of students who received the Pell Grant, a key measure of low-income students, and finds that black enrollment in Texas actually increased more than expected in the few years after deregulation.

“This finding likely reflects the pricing out of [Hispanic] students, who were either unable to afford the higher tuition or no longer perceived the increase in their human capital provided by these institutions to be worth the higher price,” the paper says. “Hispanics likely opted to attend less expensive alternatives, including non-research, two-year, or for-profit institutions; or no attendance at all.”

Flores has done other research on Hispanics in Texas and suggested that black students are more likely to take out loans and seek other forms of financial aid.

She has reached one big conclusion for Texas Hispanics: “We’re missing a big pool of students who are enrollment-eligible; it’s just not happening at the rates it should be,” she said in a telephone interview.

The state’s own figures suggest as much.

“Our basic story is that we’ve had great gains in Hispanic students but we’re still falling short of where we’ll need to be,” said David Gardner, the deputy commission of academic planning and policy at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Gardner had not yet reviewed Flores’s research and suggested there were a lot of things going on in the same time period examined in the study that could complicate any attempt to pinpoint deregulation as the sole cause.

Deregulation’s effects on tuition have also varied dramatically across Texas. Tuition at the University of Texas at Arlington went up by 133 percent from 2003 to 2009, for instance, while tuition at Tarleton State University went up 56 percent.

“All the schools didn’t react in the same way at the same time,” Gardner said. “Some institutions took many years before their tuition rose very much. And one thing that isn’t talked about is that some schools know they can’t raise their tuition above a certain level, even with deregulation, because their students simply can’t bear the cost.”

Still, the state is in danger of falling short of 15-year goals to increase Texans’ access to higher education. The goal is to have 5.7 percent of the state’s population enrolled in college by fall 2015. That’s Texans of any age, not just the traditional college-age population.  

The goal means 630,000 Texas students. As of the summer, the state was about 54,000 students shy of that goal.

But the effort is also shy of its goal of making sure 5.7 percent of each demographic group, including Hispanics, is enrolled in college, too. About 7.6 percent of blacks are in college and 5.5 percent of whites – but only 5.2 percent of Hispanics.

“We’re definitely going hit the overall target just by total numbers, but we don’t consider ourselves successful unless we hit our breakout numbers, including Hispanics,” Gardner said.

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