In announcing his bid for president Thursday, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a play for the millions of Americans contending with the high cost of college.
"I know you face rising health care costs, rising child care costs, skyrocketing tuition costs, and mounting student loan debt. I hear you, and I am going to do something about it," Perry told a crowd of supporters Thursday.
Perry's record on this subject as governor was mixed. He called on colleges to set tuition caps, and broadened access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. But some education officials in Texas say Perry's policies did more to add to the burden of student debt than relieve it.
As governor of the Lone Star state for 14 years, Perry supported hundreds of millions of dollars in spending cuts for public universities. To offset lower funding from the state, colleges in Texas raised tuition, leading more students to borrow to cover expenses.
"His overall record on accessibility to higher education was poor," said Clay Robison, a spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, which fought Perry's cuts to education budgets. "And primarily poor because of the cuts in funding and financial aid."
When Perry became governor in 2000, Texas provided about $7,791 per college student, below the national average of $8,717 but largely in line with many other states, according to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
Three years later, state appropriations started to slip in Texas, just as college enrollment crept up. Rather than set aside more money for the universities, Perry opted to deregulate college tuition, taking away the legislature's power to set prices and giving it to the schools. The average cost of tuition and fees at Texas public universities increased by 90 percent within a decade of that decision, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
While other states slashed higher education budgets during the 2008 economic recession, Texas, buoyed by a strong energy sector, made marginal increases in student spending. That ended around 2011 as years of tax cuts caught up with state and led to an $18 billion deficit.
Although the state had $6 billion in reserves to help plug that shortfall, Perry left the money untouched and imposed across the board cuts. He signed off on $1.2 billion in cuts to higher education in the 2012 budget.
Still, the governor did call on universities to lock in tuition at a flat rate for four years and cap the cost of degrees at $10,000. Perry spokesman Travis Considine pointed out that 13 schools adopted the pricing cap.
"Governor Perry led the charge in making higher education more accessible and affordable for more Texans," Considine said, in an e-mail. "During Gov. Perry's leadership, enrollment in Texas colleges and universities increased by 50 percent, with Hispanic enrollment increasing by 118 percent."
Perry took a lot of heat from his party when he backed a law allowing undocumented college students in Texas to pay in-state tuition. The law still stands and has been credited with an increase in enrollment.
While Robison of the teachers association applauds Perry for taking a stand on the issue, he said it does not negate the fact that under Perry, college in Texas has become less affordable.
"Many of those Hispanic students who have enrolled in school are first-generation college students, who are heavily dependent on student aid. The cuts have really hurt their prospects," he said.
Over the course of Perry's tenure, state higher education spending per student fell 11 percent, which is less than the national average drop of 24 percent during that time. Texas upped its spending by $350 per student before Perry left office, but critics say it was too late to reverse the pricing trends.
Nearly two-thirds of Texas students in 2013 were borrowing to pay for school and graduating with an average $25,244 in debt, a little below the national average but much higher than the prior generation, according to data from the Institute for College Access & Success.
It has become politically advantageous for presidential hopefuls to at least acknowledge the burden that $1.3 trillion in student debt has placed on millions of Americans.
Republican contenders, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have framed the issue as a barrier to economic mobility. And Democratic candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are advocating for debt-free public college, a plan party front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has yet to weigh in on.
There are 40 million people with education debt in this country. Almost two-thirds of student loans are held by people younger than 39, while Americans age 40 to 59 hold another 30 percent, according to the New York Federal Reserve. That's a pretty significant part of the electorate.