A troubling tuition cost spiral

A troubling tuition cost spiral

June 24th, 2011 in Opinion Times

It's a weird thing about soaring tuition increases at Tennessee's universities and community colleges. Though tuition and fees have doubled over the past 10 years - and keep going still higher - state officials always say they don't like the trend, and then turn around and vote to continue it. University of Tennessee trustees, with the governor's blessing, carried on that sad pattern Thursday, raising tuition and fees again by double digits. The Board of Regents is expected to follow today with similarly hefty price hikes at Tennessee's other universities and community colleges.

The harsh result, of course, is that strapped families will have to pay more to help their kids get a degree. Many more students will have to work more hours at part-time jobs while trying to take classes. And many more less affluent college aspirants will be priced out of college altogether.

The result is a slow-motion tragedy, a fading of the American dream for far too many students and families in an era where a college degree or higher education in a community college has become a necessity to find a decent job.

UT's trustees raised tuition by 12 percent at the UT-Knoxville campus, a shocking 15 percent at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis, and 9.9 percent at its Chattanooga and Martin campuses. They also significantly increased fees and fixed new mandatory fees.

With the new tuition increases, the split in funding between what the state provides and what students pay has reversed. For the first time, students next fall will pay a larger share of the cost of running the UT system than the state pays through its tax base.

In this regard, UT is also following a trend that has increasingly taken hold across the country: State funding, as a percentage of a university's revenue base, now lags revenue paid directly by students and their families - often through rising accumulation of heavy student debt.

State officials explain that revenue for higher education is being cut to cope with rising public health-care costs. Yet they never explain why they keep avoiding a state income tax that would shift a fairer portion of public costs to the state's wealthiest and most undertaxed residents, nor why they keep pushing for more new business tax cuts. Nor do they curtail the disproportional and soaring executive salaries in the higher education bureaucracies.

There are, obviously, other strategies for financing higher education than soaking students and financially strapped families. State officials would serve well to study them.