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University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro

NASHVILLE — University of Tennessee system President Joe DiPietro is recommending the board of trustees this week approve the lowest increases in student tuition "in more than 30 years."

"Shout it from the mountaintop," DiPietro quipped. "As always, action by the UT Board of Trustees is required for fee or tuition increases and, therefore, nothing is official until after the board meets."

That will come Wednesday and Thursday when first a committee and later the full UT board votes on a plan to cap tuition increases to 2.2 percent in most cases for the proposed 2016-2017 fiscal year budget.

The system includes the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Under the overall proposal, some students at UT-Martin will participate in a restructured fee program called "Soar in Four," designed to reduce the cost of obtaining an undergraduate degree by incentivizing completion in four years.

And undergraduates in UT-Knoxville's "Take 15, Graduate in 4" program who were admitted in 2013-2014 will see a 3 percent tuition increase. Previous increases for the group have been capped at lower-than-average levels in previous years, resulting in average annual increases of 2.2 percent over the last four years, according to UT.

The 2.2 percent cap, dubbed the "maintenance fee," applies to most in-state and out-of-state undergraduates with the exception of those who would be included in Martin's "Soar in Four" program.

Some graduate programs are not increasing tuition. Others are proposing increases from 2.2 percent to 5 percent.

UT also says the majority of fees will not increase. For fees where an increase is proposed, the net increase at each campus will range from nothing up to 3 percent.

Regents this week are expected to take final action on a budget that holds the line at 3 percent tuition increases. For students at Chattanooga State and Cleveland State, the overall increase for tuition and fees is 2.6 percent.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which coordinates both systems, told UT and board officials to hold the collective impact of tuition increases to 3 percent.

That came after Gov. Bill Haslam this year recommended and state lawmakers this spring approved an additional $72.2 million for salaries and inflation for the UT and Tennessee Board of Regents systems.

It was the first time in years the systems got anywhere near the state support they sought.

House freshman Rep. Kevin Dunlap, D-Sparta, said, "We need to continue to work to make our colleges and universities affordable for students. If there is to be a tuition increase, the lowest the better."

Higher education officials have previously said the state's lack of support has spurred soaring tuition increases in recent decades.

Tennessee is hardly alone. Many states in recent years have cut funding or pared back additional support for higher education as states' costs in programs like Medicaid have exploded, with the problem growing after the Great Recession struck in 2008 and dealt a blow to states' revenues.

Over the last 20 years, Tennessee's percentage share of public higher education has plummeted, prompting colleges and universities to rely on tuition and fees to cover the difference.

A decade ago, the cost share was 50/50. Two decades ago, student tuition covered just 30 percent of higher ed's budget in Tennessee.

Today, students pay about two-thirds of the cost to attend colleges while the state kicks in a third, then-TBR Chancellor John Morgan said earlier this year.

According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission's 2014-2015 Fact Book on higher ed, the state cut its actual share of spending on universities and two-year colleges by some $270 million between 2004-05 and 2014-15. That takes in the period of the Great Recession, which took years for state tax revenues to recover from.

State appropriations per full-time student enrolled at a four-year school fell 27 percent during that period, and revenue from student tuition and fees soared nearly 56 percent. Students' percentage share of education costs increased from 51 percent to 68.9 percent.

At two-year colleges, state funding per full-time student dropped 21.5 percent over that 10-year span, while tuition and fees jumped 45.3 percent. Students' share of costs rose from 43 percent to 58 percent, according to the THEC.

Earlier this year, Tennessee Senate Republicans pushed legislation that sought to limit tuition increases, with senators saying problems had nothing to do with their end and seeking to lay blame for tuition hikes on what they charged was an out-of-control higher education system.

Their bill included a provision that froze tuition rates for students at four-year institutions from their freshman years through their senior year four years later. The GOP-run House balked.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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