NASHVILLE - He isn't happy about it, but Gov. Bill Haslam says he likely will back double-digit tuition increases that University of Tennessee trustees are voting on today and Tennessee Board of Regents will consider Friday.
Haslam, who took office in January, said that over the past 30 years, costs of state-run health care programs have eaten into state appropriations for higher education.
"What's happened is that as the health care cost has expanded, it's squeezed out higher education," said Haslam, who is board chairman of both the UT and Board of Regents systems. "I wish I had a silver bullet answer."
Lacking such easy solutions, Haslam said colleges and universities must look to longer-term strategies such as controlling costs. The state needs to encourage more use of less-expensive community colleges over more costly four-year universities, and he offered up former Gov. Phil Bredesen's prescription that universities must do a better job of fundraising.
But in terms of the fall semester, Haslam told reporters earlier this week, he is inclined to back the increases.
"Well, I probably will," Haslam said. "I haven't gone to the meeting yet, so we'll see ... but I tend to say I would."
Today, UT system trustees are considering 12 percent tuition hikes for students attending the system's flagship campus in Knoxville as well as UT's Space Institute in Tullahoma.
Trustees also are looking at a 9.9 percent jump in tuition for students attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and UT-Martin.
On Friday, the Tennessee Board of Regents is considering boosting tuition between 8.8 percent to 11 percent for the system's four-year universities.
Regents are weighing increases of 9.3 percent to 11.8 percent at two-year colleges such as Chattanooga State and Cleveland State, depending on the amount of credit hours a student takes.
Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said he is concerned that at a time the state is trying to boost its college graduation rates, it is raising the costs and "making it more challenging for folks."
But Watson said he also knows state government hasn't been able to provide adequate funds. Moreover, federal stimulus funds largely are disappearing in the budget that starts July 1, placing yet more pressures, he added.
"Do I like it? No, of course not," Watson said. "But I'm not sure there's another financial option for them. I think they have gone through over the past few years some cost-cutting measures."
Higher education officials say they have cut positions, encouraged retirements and replaced professors with less-expensive staff. They also have cut course offerings and taken other measures.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, recently voiced concerns about the tuition increases, saying everyone must "be careful about closing off access to people when higher education is more important than ever."
The governor told reporters he has made it clear to higher education officials that they should "understand that pricing middle-class families out of education is an issue."
But Haslam noted, "We can't beat them [UT, TBR officials] to death because like I said, we continue to decrease their funding."
Haslam said tuition at Tennessee's public colleges and universities still compares favorably to their institutional peers in other states. Still, more should be done to control costs, the governor said.
"I think the pressure is on them to not say, 'Well, the way we're going to solve the funding issue is always to have double-digit tuition increases. That can't be the answer. So I think asking them to go back, look at their cost structures ... [to] see what they can do to help."