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Listen to the Students

No one will argue against that fact the State of Tennessee is in serious financial straits. Revenues are down significantly and a huge budget deficit is looming. However, Tennessee is also struggling in education attainment. Tennessee ranks among the lowest in the nation for college preparation, college going rate, college degree holders, and the list goes on.

This places Tennessee in a very difficult situation. How do you increase investment in educating our citizens while also addressing a budget shortfall? What we normally hear is that K-12 education will be held harmless while higher education will experience budget cuts but higher education will take a hit.

Why does it happen this way? K-12 education is mandatory for all children and fails to have alternative revenue sources. State colleges and universities, on the other hand, are voluntary and have three main sources of revenue: State appropriations, fundraising, and tuition. When one revenue stream dries up another one must flow with greater volume.

Consequently, if you cut State appropriations either fundraising or tuition must increase. In these uncertain economic times revenue from fundraising is not only uncertain but decreasing. That leaves tuition. The burden to fund the complex operations of our State colleges and universities will continue to shift to the student.

This is why we are seeing the students protesting on the State Capitol steps. They are fighting for their futures; for their ability to obtain a college education and become productive citizens. Studies have shown that college educated citizens are healthier, less likely to commit crimes, pay more taxes, and become more engaged in volunteer activities. The students merely want a chance at a life of opportunity and we need to listen to them.

Serving college qualified low to moderate income students is a shared value among both public and private universities in Tennessee. Many of these students are the first in the family to ever go to college. The percentage of low income families served is the same among both public and non-profit private sectors. When comparing average family incomes, Tennessee’s private universities actually enroll families with an average income $7,400 less than families attending the State’s public universities.

However, with the increasing pressure for universities to increase their tuition and fees, the State cannot leave college qualified low income students without college choice. The more tuitions increase the greater the higher education opportunity divide. Wealthier families will continue to go to college while low income families will stop out.

To stave off this trend the State should invest in the Tennessee Student Assistance Award (TSAA). The grant program is targeted at college qualified low income Tennesseans. Last year over $56 million was spent on 26,921 students. The tragedy is that over 56,000 qualified students did not benefit from the program because of a lack of funds. This cannot continue.

Tennessee should seek to fully fund the TSAA to hold college qualified low income students harmless from the pending tuition hikes. This can be done with a fraction of the current higher education appropriation. As well, this would enable students to attend the college that best fits their academic and social needs which will ensure that they get a quality education and graduate in timely manner. This program allows both public and private colleges to partner together to educate more Tennesseans. When some campuses have to turn students away because they are at capacity others can step up to provide a viable alternative.

It is understood that cuts will come to the higher education budgets. But the State can take action to hold those who struggle most to pay for college harmless by funding a proven and tried grant program that provides both access and affordability – the Tennessee Student Assistance Program.

Dr. Claude Pressnell


Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association

Former Vice Chair, Federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance

Nashville, TN 37212

615-2426400, ext. 201