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It’s well known that college tuition, at both public and private schools, has risen rapidly over the past several years. The steep increases have occurred across the nation, and Tennessee’s public institutions are no different, largely as a result of declining state appropriations
But when John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, told a U.S. Senate committeethat Tennessee students now pay 67 percent of the costs of their educations at the state’s universities and 60 percent at community colleges, we were curious. When many parents of today’s students were public college students themselves two, three or four decades ago, the ratio was the reverse: state appropriations comprised up to 70 percent of the costs, and students and their parents picked up the rest. Did the burden shift that much?
In a word, yes. Morgan was precisely on mark with his testimony, as expected from a higher education administrator who spent 10 years as state comptroller, state government’s chief auditor and financial watchdog.
The latest figures available from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, for the 2011-12 school year, show that student tuition and fees comprised 67 percent of the sum of revenue that state universities receive from state appropriations and from tuition and fees, and 60 percent at the community colleges. TheTHEC Fact Bookfor 2011-12, which is full of interesting information about public higher education in Tennessee, is available for review onTHEC’s website.
It’s important to note that those figures do NOT include what students pay for meal plans, residence halls and books and supplies – expenses that are not subsidized by taxpayers and which can be triple the costs of tuition at public schools. When those costs are included, students and parents are paying far more than two-thirds of the total costs of attending public institutions. But Morgan was discussing only tuition and mandatory fees.
Students’ share of the costs has been steadily rising while the state’s share has been declining. Through the mid-1980s, the state paid about 70 percent of what its public colleges and universities cost on a per-student basis. But that share has been decreasing ever since, through both Democratic and Republican control of the state Capitol.
By 2000, the state share had declined to 57 percent at its universities and 68 percent at its community colleges. By the 2011-12 school year, the state share was down to about one-third at the universities and to 40 percent at the community colleges. The tipping point when Tennessee students began paying more of the costs than taxpayers occurred in 2003 at the four-year schools and in 2009 at the two-year campuses, THEC says.
When contacted for this article, Morgan said that "even with the rise in tuition over the last five years or so, on a per full-time equivalent basis, our institutions have less money to spend than they did five or so years ago," at least through last year. "State reductions, along with a rise in enrollments, have forced us to become more efficient in a way," Morgan said.
He added:"Whatever the case, I believe we are at a point where we can’t raise tuition much beyond general-inflation increases without impacting enrollment. We may already be seeing that effect this year: enrollment is down on average across our system although historically enrollments rise during recessions and flatten out or decline somewhat during recoveries. From a public policy standpoint, if Tennessee’s future is dependent on increasing education attainment, we are going to have to find a way to make it affordable. I’m hopeful that is a conversation we have as a state this year."
Gov. Bill Haslam is focusing on higher education this year, although much of his work thus far has been on ensuring that public institutions produce graduates with skills to enter the state’s workforce. So far at least, about his only talk of affordability has been a promise to try to increase state funding and efficiencies on public campuses, which would reduce the pressures to raise tuition. It will be interesting to see how much influence Morgan, who has spent most of his career helping inform the public policy of the state, will have on that discussion.
Parents of aspiring college students who remember the days when tuition covered just one-third the per-student costs at state colleges and universities may be shocked to learn that, at least in Tennessee, students now pay 67 percent of the costs of their education through tuition and fees.
That’s the point that one of Tennessee’s top higher education officials told a Senate committee, and the research backs him up. We rule this statement True.
The Commercial Appeal, "Higher education costs soars higher: College costs rise, state support falls, squeezing students in financial vise,"Dec. 18, 2011Testimony of Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John G. Morgan, "Improving College Affordability: A View from the States," to U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sept. 13, 2012
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