For Georgia and Tennessee higher education systems, the biggest concerns this year are what to do with the budget in general and HOPE scholarship programs in particular, lawmakers and officials said.
"The big challenge [to higher education] will be the budget," said Tennessee Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson. "It's expected to take a pretty big hit. I don't know what that number will end up being at this point because the governor hasn't put his budget forward yet, but most of the issues around higher ed will be around budgetary issues."
From 2007-08 to the budget that has been proposed for 2011-12 for higher education, the state will have lost $297 million, or 22 percent, said Russ Deaton, associate executive director of fiscal affairs for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In that same period, the state has had about a 15 percent increase in enrollment or about 36,000 students, he added.
In Georgia, the situation is not much different.
From fiscal year 2009 through the recommendations for fiscal year 2012, the University System of Georgia budget will have a net reduction of $550 million in state funds, almost 24 percent, according to John Millsaps, associate vice chancellor for media and publication for the system.
"At the same time, we've grown 37,000 students during the same period of time," he said. "That's the essence of our challenge."
Although the deadline to file bills in the state legislatures is not for another week or so, lawmakers and those following higher education know discussions also will focus on the HOPE scholarship, which is funded by lotteries in both states.
A bill filed in Tennessee would increase eligibility requirements for the scholarship, while another would add HOPE money to summer semesters. Currently, the scholarships are available only in fall and spring semesters.
"We have a $300 million reserve built up in lottery funds, so we could continue to do nothing with regard to the lottery scholarship policy," said David Wright, chief policy, planning and research officer for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. "However, we are chipping away at that reserve to the tune of about $15, $16 million a year, so it won't take very long before we've depleted that reserve."
BILLS RELATED TO HIGHER EDUCATION
* HB 170: Revises Tennessee HOPE scholarship program to permit payment of the scholarship award during summer school as well as during fall and spring semesters.
* SB 271: Creates lottery scholarship programs for students preparing to become teachers.
* SB 09: Requires public postsecondary institutions to verify that applicants are citizens of the United States or are international students with a valid visa authorizing their stay in the United States.
Source: Tennessee General Assembly
* HB 59: Would require all students in Georgia be either a lawful citizen or a legal resident.
* HB 159: Would set the income cap at $66,000 on the HOPE scholarship.
* HB 49: Would change the name of the State Board of Technical and Adult Education to the State Board of Technical College System of Georgia.
Source: Georgia General Assembly
"So the question is: Is this the session during which we want to do something about it? [And] I think there is some appetite to do something, sort of nip this in the bud," he added.
In Georgia, Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, said the HOPE scholarship fund will require a lot of adjustments.
"The challenge with HOPE is just simply that the dollars being requested for scholarships right now are outpacing the dollars generated through the lottery," said Dempsey.
A bill was filed Thursday that would set the income cap at $66,000 on the HOPE scholarship. Amanda Seals, executive director of government relations for the University System of Georgia, said the Legislature is gathering ideas on how to help the program.
In terms of the budget for fiscal year 2012, there is going to be roughly a 10 percent reduction for the university system, she said.
"We anticipated that," she said, because federal stimulus funds are gone and tax revenues have dropped.
"This is just going to be a tough year for state government in general," she said.
Another issue facing both states is whether students in the country illegally can enroll in public colleges and universities.
In Tennessee, a bill was introduced that requires "public postsecondary institutions to verify that applicants are citizens of the United States or are international students with a valid visa authorizing their stay in the United States."
In Georgia, a bill has been filed that would require all students in the state to be either a lawful citizen or a legal resident.
Last year, the Georgia Board of Regents ruled that students in the country illegally cannot be enrolled at five institutions already at capacity -- University of Georgia at Athens, Georgia Tech, the Georgia Health Sciences University, Georgia State and Georgia College and State University -- if it means a student with legal status cannot get in.
"That's as far as the board decided to go on that issue," Seals said.
In Tennessee, after passing the Complete College Tennessee Act last year, the focus this year should be on implementing the changes put in place by the bill, not on creating new laws, lawmakers and state officials said.
The Complete College Tennessee Act requires colleges to compete for state dollars based on a variety of factors, such as how many students move from the freshman to sophomore year, how many students graduate and how many students transfer to an institution.
"We've had many meetings on how the [act] has been going and I think people should wait and see how that shuffles out before we start making any other significant changes," said Tennessee Rep. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.
Contact Perla Trevizo at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.