The column below was written by Bo Roberts and published in The Tennessean on June 2. Roberts is a Nashville-based marketing consultant who has worked with and consulted for higher education institutions in Tennessee. He is a Co-Chair of the UTAA Alumni Legislative Council and member of the UT Advocacy Network.
To most of us, $19 million is a whole lot of money; it’s certainly much more than the oft-referenced cost of a cup of coffee.
But, that’s the specific amount sliced from Tennessee’s allocation to public higher education institutions for the fiscal year beginning on July 1. While the governor was forced to reduce his entire budget after a lackluster year in tax revenue collections, $19 million represented a huge number, both literally and psychologically, to college and university administrators throughout the state. They had “earned” that money by excelling at a new system designed to reward productivity. Student enrollment numbers were no longer the ultimate benchmark.
So, just how much is $19 million in the grand budgetary scheme of things? It’s a mere hundredth of 1 percent of the overall $12.7 billion state budget. To put that in perspective, a family with a gross annual income of $100,000 would have to adjust its budget by $150. At approximately one cup of coffee a week, though, most wouldn’t call that a threat to making their mortgage payment.
We all understand that budget choices are agonizing. We’ve been there. Yet it comes down to plain priorities: public higher education has been suffering from a lack of preferential treatment for decades.
I say this while acknowledging that Gov. Bill Haslam has put more emphasis and given more attention to our colleges and universities than any other governor in recent memory. In fact, the budget reduction cited here was made to one of this administration’s strongest new initiatives: an effort to alter the culture of higher education by focusing on results (graduates) rather than enrollment totals. Haslam’s bold approach, coupled with his “Drive for 55” to increase the number of college graduates in the Volunteer State, and his “Tennessee Promise” to make tuition free to community colleges and colleges of applied technology, is indicative of the allegiance this administration has devoted to this particular issue.
However, don’t miss the fact that the governor is battling a funding trend that began many administrations ago. Here’s a tale-telling snapshot of recent history: 20 years ago, tuition covered about one-third of the revenues for public higher education; 10 years later, tuition costs had doubled and the amount students paid was up to 50 percent of the revenues. Today, tuition has quadrupled and covers nearly two-thirds of revenues. As any tuition-paying parent in Tennessee would agree, it’s far more than a casual cup of coffee.
How did this happen? Choices. When crunch time came, it seemed fairly painless for administrations and legislators to resist covering increasing education costs because they fully understood that the institutions could make those costs up by simply increasing tuition. The misery was passed along, so to speak, alleviating any potential hue and cry from the voters about “raising taxes.”
Speaking of suffering, Gov. Haslam was recently quoted as saying “nothing pained him more” than the cuts he had to make to raises for teachers, state employees and to higher education. We can commiserate with him because it has truly been a time of tough decisions.
But, back to choices. My hope is that when the choices are made during the next legislative session, a “cup of coffee” for higher education will take precedence over other, seemingly more important priorities. It should make the final cut. We’ll take the coffee plain, please, no cappuccinos or frills needed.