Tennessee: A plea for funds

Tennessee: A plea for funds

January 17th, 2009 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

For the last few weeks, Cleveland State President Carl Hite has been working to craft the perfect letter - a plea, really.

Addressed to mayors, city councils and county commissions across Southeast Tennessee, the letter admits that tuition at Cleveland State Community College has climbed too high and poses a question: "Are the graduates of your high schools in a financial position to attend Cleveland State?"

"I am willing to bet many are not," Dr. Hite answers himself in the letter.

With state funding on the decline, some community colleges, for the first time in their history, are turning to local governments for help. Officials are worried that a two-year degree in Tennessee has become financially out-of-reach for local students who need an education to apply for jobs at companies such as Volkswagen, Dr. Hite said.

So far, two community colleges in the state - Northeast State Community College in Blountville and Dyersburg State Community College in Dyersburg - have received funding from city or county governments to support students scholarships slashed during state budget cuts. Officials at Cleveland State and the Tennessee Board of Regents hope more municipalities will follow suit.

"We are at a breaking point already because some students cannot afford to go to school," said Charles Manning, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents. "Local communities have got to look at this as a kind of economic development just as they look at roads, sewers and water."

Yet local government officials, already strained by falling tax revenues and growing costs, said this is not the time to ask for money.

"It is hard times; we are strapped," Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said. "I think a request is honorable and logical, but I feel at this time it would be very difficult to convince the City Council."

Over the last 20 years, the percentage of higher education funded by the state has fallen by 27 percent, and students have been forced to pay for a larger chunk of the cost, Dr. Manning said.

In the 2007 to 2008 academic year, students paid $2,637 per semester to attend Cleveland State, while students at peer institutions in the Southeast paid an average of $1,670, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Last year, tuition increased at Cleveland State by 6 percent, and this year the Tennessee Higher Education Commission is predicting fees will increase another 6 percent.

Many students look for scholarships to cover the rising cost of tuition but find the money just isn't available, said Lora Brown, a 33-year-old nursing student at Cleveland State.

Ms. Brown, who has two children and attended Polk County High School, received $1,000 in scholarships to attend Cleveland State and paid the rest of her tuition costs out-of-pocket.

"It definitely takes away from other things," she said. "I wish I had more scholarships."

And the financial strain for students such as Ms. Brown may only worsen.

"Tennesseans like their taxes low and higher education is the largest discretionary pool in the state, which means that (higher education) will continue to be cut," Dr. Manning said. "Tuition has continued to go up to make up for that."

And, as schools work to enact state-mandated cuts, scholarship pools will shrink, Dr. Hite said.

This year, Cleveland State cut 12 percent of its full-tuition Academic Service Scholarships, which gave $250,000 to high-school graduates with service experience.

Chattanooga State Technical Community College is considering pursuing local help, said Eva Lewis, a spokeswoman for the school, but there isn't a formal proposal for assistance at this point. However, the school still has a lot of scholarships available for students, she said.

"It is a constant struggle to get people aware of your resources," Ms. Lewis said. "People shouldn't assume that all schools are cutting back on scholarship money. There are plenty scholarships to be had and students need to investigate them."

Northeast State Community College was the first college in the state to pursue scholarship support from local government nine years ago, Dr. Manning said. Four years ago, Dyersburg State Community College began receiving scholarship assistance from its local municipalities, he said.

He said he holds up the two schools as examples for the rest of the state in these tense times when more state cuts are imminent.

Gov. Phil Bredesen said local governments in Memphis and Knoxville are working to help fund student scholarships. However, he said that type of support is difficult to recruit these days.

"I know the mayors of Knoxville and Memphis are both talking about trying to find some way to fund a program like that locally," Gov. Bredesen said. "It got killed off in the (Senate) education committee here, and it will be a hard sell when I'm making the depth of cuts that I'm making right now."

While community colleges may be struggling, local government has its own set of problems, officials said.

Cleveland is cutting $800,000 before June and is under a hiring freeze, Mr. Rowland said.

"We realize more than ever how important higher education is, but it just gets down to: Can you afford to help?" Mr. Rowland said. "I think this year (Cleveland State) needs to look for private donors."

Municipalities all over the state are having to cut budgets because of the economic slowdown, said Carole Graves, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Municipal League. Sales tax and fuel tax collections are down, she said, and more than 350 municipalities are experiencing reductions or are seeing revenues increase less than 1 percent.

"Cities are subject to the same market conditions as the state," Ms. Graves said. "It will be up to each community (to decide if they want to fund higher education), but they are feeling the effects of the national economy."

Yet Dr. Hite said he believes local government should invest in students pursuing higher education as a way to stimulate economic development.

"I don't think people in this city and county want to see jobs filled by people from elsewhere," he said. "It is like a slap in the face to these local folks."

Though it is a long shot, he said he plans to ask each municipality for about $10,000.

"It is not a desperate move," he said. "It is just another conversation."

Staff Writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.