The University of Tennessee can't afford being a "best value" in education any more, and some trustees want to consider double-digit tuition increases.
"I am telling you tuition is too low," UT trustee Don Stansberry said. "I don't want to win an award for best value in education. That's French for 'You're too cheap.'"
This year, the Princeton Review named UT as one of 50 best-value colleges in the county. Kiplinger named UT a best value in 2008; U.S. News and World Report included UTC in its best value list; and Institutional Research and Evaluation Inc. named UT-Martin a best value from 2006 to 2009.
But some trustees say now is the time for the system to consider a double-digit tuition increase. Mr. Stansberry said he wonders if 10 percent or 11 percent might be needed to maintain the quality of programs.
Some students agree. They said they would pay more tuition to save classes and professors that UT administrators will cut to make up for $66 million in state funding reductions next year.
"I definitely don't want to see an increase, but sacrifices have to be made," UTC freshman Laquisa Carter said.
Of its 13 peer institutions in the Southeast, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville ranks as the eighth-lowest in tuition and fees. UT's tuition was $6,250 this academic year, while the peer average was $6,907. Peer institutions include University of Virginia, University of Kentucky and Auburn University, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
UTC is the fifth-lowest in its peer group of 13 colleges in the Southeast, which includes Morgan State University and Appalachian State University. UT-Martin is the 10th-lowest in its peer group, which includes Radford University and Jacksonville State University, documents show.
THEC recommended a 7 percent tuition increase for schools such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UT-Martin and a 9 percent increase for UT and the University of Memphis.
Those recommendations are not intended to cover most of the budget reductions the universities face - UT will recover only one-third of the cuts through tuition increases, said Rich Rhoda, executive director of THEC.
While upper-middle class students with HOPE scholarships easily can afford a tuition increase higher than what THEC recommends, the majority of Tennessee students are struggling to pay for college, he said.
"It is the middle- and lower-income students that we need to think about," Mr. Rhoda said. "We have got to be careful when we talk about increasing tuition and fees because Tennessee is not a well-educated state nor are we a wealthy state, and we need to set tuition policy to serve as many students as we can."
State legislators and Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is chairman of the UT board of trustees, have been outspoken that Tennessee families should not bear the brunt of budget cuts.
"My goal is for tuition increases to be the last resort," said state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, the newest member of the House higher education subcommittee. "There has to be ways of making other difficult decisions."
He said legislators are concerned that the state is not providing enough money for higher education and that cuts could affect academic quality. Lawmakers still believe there are areas of waste. UT's administration should be trimmed before a higher tuition increase is discussed, Rep. Brooks said.
UT trustees are expected to make a final decision on tuition increases at the board meeting in June.
University administrators said THEC's recommended increases and federal stimulus aid won't be enough to prevent a deterioration of academic program quality.
Campuses are planning to cancel hundreds of courses, delay program admissions and cuts hundreds of university faculty and staff positions.
Forty academic programs are under review for closure and UT-managed public services, such as the agriculture extension agency, will face losses.
Officials have said students coming to campuses in the fall can expect larger classes.
Alex Whidmer, a freshman in business marketing at UTC, said the proposed cuts will make it harder for him and his classmates to find the classes they need to graduate on time.
"If you pay a little more, you are helping yourself and faculty," he said.
The cuts in classes especially could affect college juniors and seniors, said Lynndella Curtis, a junior at UTC majoring in psychology who pays $2,000 a year to attend UTC because she is supported by scholarships.
"I would rather pay the extra money and graduate on time because I am sick of being here," she said.
Tom Rakes, chancellor of UT-Martin, is calling for an 8 percent or 9 percent tuition increase, while UTC Chancellor Roger Brown is asking trustees to approve a 9 percent tuition increase.
Trustees are concerned they will face political backlash if they approve double-digit tuition hikes, said UT board Vice Chairman Jim Murphy.
"We still have people who believe by paying a low rate of taxes and tuition, you get a high-quality education," he said.
At the UT board of trustees meeting in February, Dr. Rakes asked trustees to forget the political pressures of Nashville and do what is right for the UT campuses.
"Any increase in fees will be met with resistance. We know that it is an uphill battle if you talk about increasing the costs for anything," he said.