Tennessee college students face higher than expected tuition hikes

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslem addresses those in attendance at MTSU for the signing or bill which will enable Hope Scholarship recipients at all state universities to use, as full-time students, up to $2,000 per semester in fall, spring, and summer semesters up to a 120-credit hour cap. Photo by Jim Davis/DNJ

NASHVILLE - College tuition could rise this fall by 9.5 percent or even higher for students at Chattanooga State, Cleveland State and other Tennessee Board of Regents colleges and universities, authorities said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the University of Tennessee's vice president for public and government relations, Hank Dye, said the UT board of trustees will also consider increases in the "same general ballpark" at its institutions such as the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Officials are pinning blame for the sharper-than-expected increases on a variety of factors, including cuts of 2 percent or about $20 million in state appropriations for higher education in the budget year starting July 1.

Moreover, the Board of Regents and UT systems are continuing to digest the loss of nearly $300 million in federal stimulus funds on July 1, officials said. And the systems also must foot the bill for part of a 1.6 percent pay increase for employees.

Students previously were bracing for 7 percent hikes based on recommendations made last November by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. But the UT and Board of Regents system boards are not bound by that, officials say.

Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan told reporters that "I think what we're going to see is a recommendation from staff that will be somewhere between 8.5 percent to 9.5 percent, with some opportunity for discussion of individual institutions that may need more. ... We don't really know how that's going to come out yet."

Staffers at the Board of Regents are running figures that will be presented to the board's finance committee on Monday, Morgan said. The committee will make its own recommendation to the full board later in the month.

The 8.5 percent range would apparently apply to two-year community colleges like Chattanooga State Community College, Cleveland State Community College and Motlow State Community College near Tullahoma.

UT spokesman Dye said its full board will consider tuition increases at its June 23 meeting.

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"There's likely to be some differential among our campuses and, generally speaking, they're going to be in that same [Board of Regents] range," Dye said. "They won't be less than that."

Dye said UT tries to keep tuition as low as officials "reasonably can," but must act to continue to meet its mission as other funds get cut.

According to figures provided by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the burden of paying the costs for a degree is falling increasingly on students.

Russ Deaton, the commission's associate executive director for fiscal affairs, said preliminary estimates for the 2011-12 academic year indicate 67 percent of education and general revenues at four-year universities will come from tuition and the rest from state appropriations.

That doesn't include specific mandatory dedicated fees such as health services or dorm charges, he said, and the percentage could be higher, depending on the amount of the tuition increase.

While tuition now accounts for two-thirds of education and general revenues, Deaton noted that, in the 2001-02 academic year, it was just 46 percent.

For community colleges, the 2011-12 figure is projected at 60 percent. In 2001-02, it was only 36 percent.

That trend worries Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a Senate Education Committee member.

"We've been steadily decreasing state appropriations to higher education, making it more difficult for these institutions to function without tuition hikes," Berke said. "The amount of college debt in our country now exceeds the amount of credit card debt in our country."

Berke said the Haslam administration and lawmakers "have to be careful about closing off access to people when higher education is more important than ever."

Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro said things could be worse. Haslam deserves "high praise because the cut of 2 percent is really modest versus what you see across the United States in higher education," he said.

Morgan said he believes the situation will improve as Tennessee recovers from the recession.

Morgan made his comments to reporters after a signing ceremony in which Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law new policies regarding use of lottery-funded college scholarships. Such scholarships can now be used for summer school. But the law also implements a cap of 120 credit hours for most students.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.