Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Higher Education Suffers as Tennesseans Say `No' to New Taxes

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Higher Education Suffers as Tennesseans Say `No' to New Taxes

Article excerpt

For the last three years, Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist has been in intense bouts with the state Legislature over his plan of increasing taxes as a way to better fund Tennessee's 24 public colleges and universities. And each year, the Republican governor has come away battered and bruised in crushing defeats, and state schools have been forced to make due with bare-bone appropriations.

In Tennessee, home of country music, tobacco farmers and Bible-Belt politics, higher education funding is taking a back seat to other financial needs caused in part by the downturn in the economy and the state's struggling health-care plan. This summer, in the governor's failed attempt to increase college funding by $97 million, the state's two higher education systems were forced to raise tuition by 15 percent, a national trend that has some experts worried about the "privatization" of public schools.

"What prevailed yesterday was a budget that fails to meet the needs of Tennesseans," said Sundquist during an August press conference a day after his veto was overridden by the General Assembly. In overriding the governor's veto, Tennessee lawmakers passed a $19.6 billion budget, raised no new taxes and spent $560 million of tobacco settlement funds.

"Reports will continue, however, about Tennessee's unwillingness to invest in the future, about our low rankings in education and our even lower expectations for a better tomorrow," Sundquist said.

Indeed, colleges and universities across the country are increasing tuition due to cutbacks in state funding, effectively making students take up the financial slack. Experts believe the trend is making it more difficult for low-income students to attend public schools.

Nationally, state money is accounting for less of total revenues of four-year public universities, while tuition is accounting for more. In 1988-89, state funds made up 39.9 percent of total revenues; in 1998-99, that number shrank to 31.5 percent, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU). During that same time, in 1988-89, tuition accounted for 14.7 percent of total revenues for four-year public institutions; in 1998-99, the number rose to 18.4 percent.

"This really poses a challenge to institutions, state legislatures and governors," says Travis Reindl, director of state policy for the AASCU.

"Anytime you increase tuition, you have to think about whether or not you're pricing people out of higher education. And that's particularly tree for public colleges and universities. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. And (tuition increases have) taken a real bite out of the poorest families."

Tennessee has apparently already felt the bite of tuition hikes. Overall undergraduate enrollment in Tennessee's public schools has dipped over the last three years, going from 170,902 in 1997 to 168,818 last year. But during that same period, Black undergraduate enrollment increased by 1,892 students, while White enrollment decreased by 5,171. The numbers were similar in professional and graduate schools: a decrease in both total enrollment and White enrollment but an increase in African American enrollment. Most of the growth in Black enrollment from 1997 to 2000 came from historically Black Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis. …

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