Cheaper tuition, a hallmark of community colleges, could be a thing of the past in Tennessee as the state continues to trim higher education funding and push the costs onto students, according to a new national report.
"Concerns about college affordability have most likely been driving many students to community college," the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education stated in a recent study on two-year college affordability in all 50 states. "If current trends continue, more students will be priced out of higher education altogether."
In the last decade, the state's two-year schools have increased tuition by 73.8 percent, making Tennessee one of the states with the most significant change in community college costs over that period. At the same time, the state's median family income has declined, according to the report released earlier this month.
This month, the Tennessee Board of Regents approved its highest tuition increase at community college in six years - a 9.3 percent hike beginning this fall. Since the recession began in 2007, the board tried to spare two-year schools from tuition increases because they wanted the schools to be accessible to individuals facing lost hours at work or layoffs who wanted to return to community colleges for more training.
But a 1.6 percent increase in employee salaries, approved at the same time as the tuition increase, and the loss of $170 million in federal stimulus funding plus an additional $20 million state cut to the Regents system forced the board to approve the hike.
"The cost of doing business has increased," said Jeff Olingy, a spokesman for Chattanooga State Community College. "It's not anything that we look forward to handling or communicating, but above that obligation is the obligation to give these students a good education, and we can't do anything to jeopardize that."
At Chattanooga State and Cleveland State Community College, tuition has more than doubled over the past decade, from $1,488 a year for in-state students in 2000 to $3,096 in 2011.
In 2010, Tennessee's two-year tuition was $400 more expensive annually than the regional average and ranked only below only Kentucky, South Carolina and Maryland among 16 states monitored by the Southeast Regional Education Board.
"This is the year where the largest source of income is not the state. It's students," said Cleveland State President Carl Hite. "That should not be the case."
The average median family income in Tennessee has shrunk from a three-year average of $44,761 from 1998 to 2000 to an average of $40,895 from 2007 to 2009.
Amy Parsons, 33, a part-time student at Chattanooga State, who works full time but returned to college a year ago to begin work toward a four-year degree, chose to attend a community college because it was affordable and flexible.
Four-year schools in Tennessee - many of which have more than doubled tuition over the last decade - are also getting pricier. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga upped its tuition by 9.9 percent this year to $6,718 annually for full-time students.
But Parsons has started to worry more as her students loans grow with tuition hikes.
"It makes the future look grim at times, especially knowing that you are going to have to repay your loans," Parsons said. "There needs to be a cap at some point."
Many students are offsetting rising costs with federal Pell grants, which were increased recently by Congress, making more people eligible for larger awards, and Tennessee HOPE scholarships, funded by the state lottery.
Still, both financial aid programs are at risk of being cut because of financial turbulence at the state and national levels.
If college costs don't stabilize, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education predicts that states will struggle to meet goals of increasing the number of college graduates, which it says will hinder already weak economic growth.
Tennessee graduates only 14 percent of students who enter a two-year degree program, while 21 percent graduate from community colleges nationally, according to the report.
"Tuition increases that outpace family income, particularly at community colleges ... discourage enrollment, transfer, full-time enrollment and degree completion," the report states.