The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday unanimously voted to advance a bill that would freeze tuition at state colleges and universities until the 2018-19 school year. After that point, the bill requires a unanimous vote by a university’s Board to raise tuition more than 2 percent over the most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase.
The bill also mandates the creation of a tuition freeze program, which would begin with freshman enrolling in 2018 and require that tuition and all mandatory fees remain fixed at freshman-year rates for the students’ first four academic years. Senate Education Chair Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) and Representative Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) are sponsoring the measure.
Discussion on the bill was limited after Sen. Dolores Gresham gave a presentation criticizing tuition increases at the University of Tennessee—increases she claimed were not a result of the decline in available state funding for public higher education but instead were designed to inflate the number and salaries of higher education administrative staff. Her presentation also suggested that despite the increase in tuition rates—which have in part paid for increased student advising, the reduction of so-called “bottle-neck” courses that often stand in the way of students earning their degrees on time, and improving other student services to increase retention and graduate more students more efficiently—graduation rates had remained relatively flat.
The university respectfully disagrees and has data that clearly shows otherwise. On average, the UT System’s graduation rates have increased by 5 percent in the last four years alone. The most dramatic increase has occurred at UT Knoxville, where the graduation rate has increased by almost 9 percent in the last four years. These increases are significant and outpace the growth of many peer institutions nationwide.
UT Vice President of Government Relations and Advocacy, Anthony Haynes, told reporters on Wednesday that he was surprised by the presentation. “If we have been given a better idea of what the presentation was, we could have prepared for it. There continues to be a lack of understanding about the cause of tuition increases. Nobody has worked harder to keep tuition lower in Tennessee than UT.”
During the hearing, the fact that UT’s base funding was cut by state lawmakers by more than $120 million from 2008 to 2012 was dismissed as a factor leading to increased tuition rates. Funding cuts of such magnitude required institutions to find efficiencies, eliminate positions, and cut costs, but also made it necessary to raise tuition rates to offset lost funding and continue to make improvements to student services and academic quality.
UT has for some time now recognized the burden that increased tuition rates have placed on Tennessee families over the years. That’s why UT, led by President Joe DiPietro, has been at the forefront of a multi-year initiative to find new efficiencies, cut costs, and keep tuition increases as low as possible. In the last year alone, despite keeping tuition increases to their lowest levels in over 30 years, the University of Tennessee created more than $130 million in savings, reducing a projected budget gap of $377 million over the next decade to slightly more than $247 million.
Tennessee’s public higher education institutions are rightly concerned about the bill becoming law. Given the nationwide trend of declining state support for higher education and a past history of Tennessee doing the same—instituting such a freeze in statute could place public higher education institutions in peril, especially if lawmakers fail to provide adequate state funding in the future. Institutions could again be put in positions where they have no choice but to cut degree programs, positions, access to courses, student services, and enact other measures that ultimately limit both access to higher education and quality.
The bill carries with it a hefty reduction in funding according to the General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee. The fiscal note mounts to more than $32 million in recurring losses for UT alone (spread across the Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Martin campuses). While it is too soon to predict the bill’s ultimate fate, we will continue to monitor the situation and will keep advocates informed on any developments. The measure will now be sent to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee for consideration. It is not on next week’s Senate Finance calendar and has not yet been calendared in the House.Senate Education Committee, TN, Tuition, tuition freeze, UT