NASHVILLE Tenn. — A Republican state lawmaker says he wants to freeze tuition at Tennessee’s colleges and universities despite criticism from education officials that such a proposal would eliminate funds needed to sustain essential programs and basic operation.
Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson announced this week that he plans to file legislation during the next session to keep tuition at the current rates for several years.
The Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system recently adopted tuition hikes ranging from 3 to 6 percent.
“The current increases are an outrage, especially in light of this year’s increase in appropriations to … higher education systems,” Summerville said in a news release.
Gov. Bill Haslam approved more than $100 million for higher education in his budget this year.
Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said colleges and universities are grateful for the appropriation, but he said “one year of increased funding doesn’t undo the many years’ worth of reduced state appropriations that have shifted the funding of public higher education away from the state and onto our students.”
He said freezing tuition hikes could adversely affect essential higher education programs, as well as one of Haslam’s main education plans.
The governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative is intended to increase the number of Tennesseans with at least a two-year college degree or certificate.
Currently, 32 percent of Tennesseans have a two-year degree or higher, and Haslam’s goal is to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025.
“Restricting our ability to fund the programs we need would severely limit our efforts to reach Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 goal to increase the education attainment of more Tennesseans,” Morgan said.
UT officials said in a statement that extra money is needed beyond what the state provides to cover fluctuating operational and maintenance costs.
“Just 10 years ago, state funds made up more than 50 percent of the University of Tennessee’s budget,” according to the statement. “Today, state funds make up about 30 percent of the University’s budget. Meanwhile, the university’s fixed costs for utilities, equipment, and maintenance, for example, have been ongoing and increasing.”
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said House Democrats introduced an alternative budget two years ago that would have frozen tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year. That proposal died on a party-line vote.
“I applaud the spirit of Senator Summerville’s bill,” said the Ripley Democrat. “We certainly need to do something about tuition, but as I said two years ago, we have to take a balanced approach that makes sure the state is keeping up its end of the bargain and properly funding higher education.”
Summerville said tuition hikes cause students to take out additional loans. He cited a study by the Bloomberg News College Board that found 56 percent of public four-year college students average $23,800 in student loans upon graduation.
“These ever-increasing costs led students to take out more loans, thus saddling themselves with debt that can take almost a lifetime to pay back,” Summerville said.
David Pomohaci of Hendersonville is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering at Tennessee State University. He acknowledged student loans are a burden and said a tuition freeze would probably help a lot of students.
“I think that would be a good thing for everybody,” he said.
The tuition freeze measure isn’t the first legislation Summerville has proposed that has clashed with education officials. During the last session he proposed a measure to eliminate affirmative action initiatives from higher education institutions in Tennessee.
The legislation was defeated in the Senate Education Committee. Four members of the Republican-majority committee voted for the measure, two voted against it and three abstained.
Summerville said after the vote that Republicans who contributed to the bill’s failure could face repercussions in next year’s election.
“Next year … a third of the Senate, including me, will be up for re-election, and this is going to be an issue in the primaries,” he said. “Every Republican with a primary opponent will have to answer for the vote on this bill.”