Proposed Higher Education Budgets Heard in House Education Committee

Yesterday, the House Education Committee held budget hearings for the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Board of Regents, and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). While the Committee does not make a recommendation regarding these budgets (this is done in the House Finance and Senate Education Committees), the hearing provides an opportunity for members to ask questions of the State’s higher education leadership.

Overall, the hearing focused primarily on the Governor’s proposed budget and its impacts on the State’s two higher education systems, especially in light of the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 (CCTA) and pending Drive to 55 Initiative. The CCTA placed Tennessee in the national spotlight for higher education reform and changed the way colleges and universities were rewarded. Prior to passage, funding was largely based on enrollment—how many “seats” the college or university could fill. Now, colleges and universities are rewarded based on how well they achieve outcomes, such as graduating and retaining students.

But for the first time in the new funding model’s history, it likely will not be funded fully. THEC, who makes a funding recommendation annually, recommended $29.6 million to fund the formula for FY15. The Governor’s budget proposes only $9.3 million for the formula—the same $9.3 million required to meet the state’s portion of a 1 percent salary increase for higher education employees.

Even in the midst of a tough budget year for the State (the State’s overall budget took a reduction of 2.4 percent), the funding levels included in the Governor’s budget for higher education led to an interesting line of questioning in the House Education budget hearing.

Members asked how the budget recommendation might impact tuition increases.

In the fall, THEC recommended an increase of 2 to 4 percent. While leaders articulated that they hope to keep tuition increases down—they also recognized that the funding level in the budget proposal changes the conversation.

Rep. Ryan Williams (R-Cookeville) directly asked the Chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, “Do you feel like the General Assembly has fulfilled its promise on the Complete College Act as it relates to funding?”

“Yes and No,” Morgan answered, referencing the formula’s fully funded past and its potential future for being funded at under a third of the recommended level.

Rep. Williams vocally recognized the funding disparity in the proposed budget for outcomes that higher education institutions have achieved, thanking leaders for their hard work. “Obviously, this $29.6 million is based upon the fact that we said to you as a General Assembly “You do this—You provide these outcomes—We fund you. And we appreciate your hard work.”

Another interesting line of questioning arose from Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), who asked presenters to comment on the current structure of higher education in Tennessee and the idea of merging the higher education systems. The overwhelming response from both President DiPietro and Chancellor John Morgan was that restructuring the systems would not likely yield significant cost savings nor increase efficiency given the academic and mission roles each system plays in the state.

At this hearing, no direct questions were asked regarding student fees and student programming. The issue continues to be highly controversial amongst legislators and legislation on the matter is pending.  An important note: Questioning by members was somewhat limited due to time constraints on the hearing room.

To watch the budget hearing, click here.

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