Nashville Eye Higher Ed Feels Hit

When does enough finally become too much?

Tennessee may be reaching that point in one significantly critical area as the state budget belt tightens in response to an economic downturn.  That area: Higher education.

As one who has been privileged to work in higher education (University of Tennessee) and to consult with the nation’s sixth largest system of higher education (Tennessee Board of Regents), I have some knowledge of the many dedicated, hard-working, penny-pinching leaders we have in this state.  They have taken their lumps in the budget cuts as have other areas of state government.  But, unlike other state agencies, they have a resource for offsetting some of the pain: student tuition.

But, when do we reach the point of diminishing returns?  We are getting perilously close.

A bit of a reality-based, historical check here: When first elected, Gov. Phil Bredesen had to address a disastrous budget situation, which he handled with aplomb..  He dealt with the hemorrhaging TennCare system, wrestled the budget demons into balance, and, when the economy was better, he introduced progressive programs for moving Tennessee ahead with education at the forefront.

I believe, and a recent statewide poll indicates I am not alone, that Gov. Bredesen has acquitted himself quite well….during the good times, and particularly during the recent tough times.  Who better to steer us through this economic morass?

His priorities prevailed during the budget reductions, with only K-12 surviving actual cutbacks.  That’s as it should be. However, I think another priority should be considered if the bleak economic forecasts continue, and that is public higher education.

How much more should students and their families pay?  Again, as one who has followed the ups and downs of public higher education for decades, the rule of thumb was two dollars of state appropriation to each dollar of student tuition and fees.  That rule began eroding in the 90’s, and reached the “tipping” point in fiscal 2003-04 when, for the first time, students were paying more than the state appropriated.

During the past 10 years, tuition and fees increased more than 150 per cent, while state appropriations increased less than 40 per cent.  Unfortunately that gap continues to widen.

What does all this mean?  To me, public higher education in Tennessee is in danger of losing ground….territory that will be more and more difficult to recover. Despite such mitigating factors as the lottery-funded scholarships, assistance to non-qualifying students  is declining.

We can speculate and theorize all we want, but my reality check as a first-generation, GI-bill-supported graduate of a public institution who has benefited a lifetime from that opportunity. I don’t want others to miss out on a similar chance because they can’t afford it or because programs have been drastically reduced.

I only ask that as future budget adjustments are made, that the state’s leaders carefully consider the long-term ramifications that additional cuts will have on this vitally important part of Tennessee’s potential and its future.


Bo Roberts is a Nashville marketing consultant and managing partner of Roberts Strategies.