NASHVILLE — Tennessee higher-education leaders pledged Thursday to try to keep tuition hikes below 10 percent for in-state, undergraduate students, despite Gov. Phil Bredesen’s plans to cut $55 million from their operating budgets.
“That’s what we’re working toward,” University of Tennessee President John Petersen said. “It’s still early in the process of ascertaining everything that we have. But I think everybody understands the magnitude of what the budget impact is going to be on the entire state.”
Still, Dr. Petersen did not entirely rule out exceeding 10-percent increases.
“I don’t anticipate it,” he said. “But it’s never over until you get your board to vote on it.”
The $55 million in cuts to the UT and Board of Regents systems were among $468 million in total reductions that Gov. Bredesen said Wednesday are necessary to put his proposed 2008-09 budget in balance.
When announcing the reductions, Gov. Bredesen said things are so bad he is developing a voluntary buyout program to reduce the state’s workforce by 2,011 people. He blames a faltering national economy for the state’s money problems.
Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Manning said Thursday that officials agreed to keep tuition increases under 10 percent when Gov. Bredesen presented his first proposed budget.
“We certainly are going to try to maintain that” despite the just-announced cuts, Dr. Manning said. “But it’s a little hard to say that definitively until we really know the implications. But that’s certainly the objective and we see that as the ... challenge that the governor has laid out to try to do that.”
Noting both UT and the Board of Regents are self-governed entities, Gov. Bredesen told reporters Thursday that “they have the ability to raise some funds of their own through tuition increases and the like.”
The governor said “there’s kind of been a tradition of not interfering in detail with what it is that they’re doing on funding.”
But some lawmakers, including House Education Committee Chairman Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, are putting pressure on education officials not to go above single-digit hikes on tuition.
The vice chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, a former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga professor, said she is concerned about “being able to maintain that teaching (position) as well as keep the tuition at a rate that students will be able to attend. That’s a balancing act, and we know how difficult that is.”
UTC junior Desmond Robertson, 19, of Memphis, said he’s endured several tuition and fee increases since enrolling at the school.
“It’s hitting us all at once,” Mr. Robertson said. “Tuition is going up and so are books and housing. Everything is going up at one time, including gas.”
Small increases are something students like Mr. Roberts and recent grad Evan Jones, say most students can begrudgingly endure.
“I think there is going to be the drop that makes the vase spill over,” Mr. Jones said. “There’s going to be a breaking point, but whether this is that breaking point, I’m not so sure.”
Speaking to reporters earlier in Legislative Plaza, UT’s Dr. Petersen said the system can achieve reductions “through a combination of ways,” including not filling vacancies when employees retire.
“You try to manage the best you can,” he said.
Dr. Manning said the Board of Regents institutions might follow the governor’s lead and offer some early retirement packages or look more at outside contracting.
He said one challenge the Board of Regents faces is handling two-year colleges such as Chattanooga State Technical Community College. The state provides 60 percent of the two-year schools’ total funding while providing 50 percent of four-year universities’ funding, Dr. Manning said.
Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Rich Rhoda said the oversight panel has “reaffirmed a recommendation to keep it (tuition hikes) below 10 percent, with the understanding that that was undergraduate, in-state (students) that we’re most concerned about.”
He said there “may be some variance” with out-of-state students, graduate or professional tuitions. But final decisions will be up to UT and Regents governing boards, he said.
While Gov. Bredesen’s original budget provided $22.9 million to help provide 2 percent raises for higher-education employees, Dr. Rhoda said that appears to be gone now. Rep. Harry Tindell, D-Knoxville, chairman of the powerful House Budget Subcommittee, said that is the case.
Before the projected state budget shortfall, the higher-education commission proposed no tuition increases at two-year colleges. But officials said in March that tuition at Chattanooga State could increase 7 percent to 9 percent.
The commission originally recommended this year that UTC tuition be increased by 5 percent to 7 percent. But the university’s vice chancellor for finance and operation, Richard Brown, said earlier this week the governor’s announcement could change that.
Reporters Joan Garrett and Adam Crisp contributed to this report.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...