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Students protest cuts in higher education

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Students at Tennessee Board of Regents schools protested planned cuts in higher education Tuesday, warning lawmakers they’re already burdened with high tuition and won’t be able to afford college if more money is slashed from the state budget.

About 250 students met at the Tennessee State University campus in downtown Nashville and marched to Legislative Plaza, where they held a rally chanting “Save our Schools” and waving signs that read “Stop the Cuts” and “I Want to Graduate in Four Years.”

Students are upset that the board in December approved a change in how tuition is charged by eliminating the 12-hour tuition “cap.” Beginning fall 2009, all students will pay an hourly rate for each semester hour of classes. Currently, anything above 12 hours per semester is essentially free to students.

The board has not decided how much the tuition charge will be. The board is unlikely to vote on tuition rates before June.

Gov. Phil Bredesen has told state colleges and universities they will have to significantly cut their budgets to meet a state budget shortfall.

Yet students say they’ve seen their tuition grow steadily in recent years and believe state higher education is being unfairly overburdened in this economic downturn.

“The (tuition) cap is just part of the battle,” said Gionni Carr, a University of Memphis graduate student and student representative on the board, who voted against the tuition cap and attended Tuesday’s protest.

“The overall war is to get more attention paid to higher education because we’ve been cut so many times. We’ve had our tuition increased over and over again.

“My fear is we’re already in one of the least educated states in America. By cutting higher education, you’re doing damage to our infrastructure because you’re making it difficult for people to obtain the education that will attract businesses to come here.”

Charles Manning, chancellor for the Board of Regents, said he understands students’ frustrations and acknowledges they’ve faced tuition increases each year for at least the last two decades.

“Students are paying more and more and the state is paying less and less,” Manning said. “The state has a severe financial crisis.”

Over a period of years, state appropriations for higher education has decreased and tuition has increased. Historically, the state has funded considerably more than the student, but in 4-year institutions it is about equal now.

Manning noted that part-time students, who have had to pay an hourly rate for each semester of classes, under the old system paid over 30 percent more for their degrees than full-time students because full-time students went to class free for everything above 12 hours. Now he says they’ll be on equal footing, with both full and part-time students paying an hourly rate for each semester hour of classes.

By changing the method of charging, however, Carr said more full-time students will have no choice but to stay in school longer than four years.

“(Tuition cap) It’s not taking into account that tuition is increasing and we’re in a recession and that the economic shortfall, even though a lot of people are bearing it, they’re shifting it on the students,” he said.

The Board of Regents system includes six universities, 13 two-year colleges and 26 technology centers, providing programs in 90 of Tennessee’s 95 counties to more than 180,000 students.

In June, the board increased tuition by 7 percent at the University of Memphis and 6 percent at the system’s other 4-year universities for 2008-09. Current tuition and fees for in-state students at the University of Memphis is $4,978 while it’s $4,301 at the other 4-year universities.

Tennessee’s public colleges and universities have been forced to absorb $90 million in budget cuts in 2008 and have been asked by Bredesen’s administration to trim another $181.7 million, or 14.6 percent, in their plans for fiscal 2009-2010, which begins July 1.

The five-campus, 46,000-student University of Tennessee system’s share of this was $38 million in 2008 and $75 million this year. The rest is coming from the Tennessee Board of Regents system.

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