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Independent Higher Education Provides Stability and Prestige [OP-ED]

Tennessee has a third partner in the higher education community. One that stands along side the University of Tennessee (UT) and the Board of Regents. A partner whose members are readily known individually, yet tend to be overlooked collectively. It is the independent higher education sector. A stable sector whose roots date back to 1794, making it one of the first providers of post-secondary education in the state. Nashville area members include: Aquinas College, Belmont University, Cumberland University, Fisk University, Free Will Baptist Bible College, Gupton College, Lipscomb University, Meharry Medical College, Trevecca Nazarene University and Vanderbilt University. This list reflects diversity, quality, depth, and prestige. These institutions of higher learning offer a diverse array of learning experiences designed to fit the personal needs of each student. As a result, many independent colleges in Tennessee have received national acclaim for the quality and depth of their programs. All of which brings a perception of prestige to the higher education community in Tennessee and draws thousands of students from all over the world to study in our great state. Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association's 35 institutional members educate over 52,800 students. From Memphis to Bristol, these institutions of higher learning are actively serving their communities by educating over 26,000 Tennesseans. Independent colleges and universities are first to recognize that they do not stand-alone. No one higher education sector can accomplish the learning needs of Tennessee. Without improvements in the University of Tennessee and the Board of Regents the task of providing quality education becomes increasingly difficult. As the reputation of Tennessee's public higher education falters, so goes the state. If our state systems are not provided the resources necessary to advance into the top tier of state-sponsored universities then the hope of keeping the best high school graduates in Tennessee will be dashed, much less trying to attract top graduates from out-of-state. The long-term result will be an under-prepared workforce and loss of private investment in Tennessee. One result of the state's inability to fund its higher education systems is a 15% tuition hike for the upcoming academic year. This additional tuition revenue will not bolster research or provide for new cutting-edge programs. It simply enables UT and the Board of Regents to slow the oncoming deterioration of existing programs and facilities. It does nothing to help stem the tide of top faculty leaving Tennessee for better positions elsewhere. Positions in other states where the support of higher education is obvious and the institution's commitment to intellectual pursuits is measurable. With next year's funding cycle looking equally dismal, state higher education officials are looking to decrease enrollments and cease innovative satellite course offerings. The ability to think creatively and progressively about knowledge delivery has been stymied by the state's budget debate. With only 17% Tennesseans holding a bachelor's degree, this is no time to be decreasing higher education enrollments. What is even more dire than higher education's funding deficit is the ensuing reputation deficit. For every year Tennessee is perceived to not value higher education it will take at least three to overcome. Faculty will not be drawn to teach in a state where support is questioned. Students will not want to have to "settle" for a degree from Tennessee when they can go to another state with a reputation of education excellence. Tennessee's independent colleges and universities have grown over 20% since 1990. They continue to respond quickly and responsibly to population trends and community needs. They have demonstrated their willingness to apply their resources to partner with the UT and Board of Regents in accomplishing the greater higher education goals of Tennessee. But when the partners are weak, it strains everyone. This is an emergency. Help is needed. We should not pride ourselves in competing with our neighboring states to have the worst reputation for higher education in the nation. Rather, the state of Tennessee should take courageous measures to address the needs and future of higher education. Dr. Claude O. Pressnell, Jr. President Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association 2409 21st Avenue South, Suite 202 Nashville, TN 37212 615-242-6400 pressnell@ticua.org www.ticua.org