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Tennessee universities' sticker shock grows

8:55 AM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
Students walk to class on the Middle Tennessee State University campus/ Sanford Myers / The Tennessean
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By Lisa Lingerfoot, The Tennessean

Tennessee State University freshman Brea Amos was ready to pack up and head home when school administrators found a last-minute scholarship that allowed her to stay at school.

Her financial need is a common problem in Tennessee public colleges as families struggle to keep up with skyrocketing attendance costs. At TSU alone, about 300 students quit school last fall because of money, President Glenda Glover said.

The costs are creating such hurdles for Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to increase the number of college graduates in Tennessee that he is proposing an increase in higher education funding in hopes of creating more scholarships.

The governor also has an adviser studying whether financial aid plans are helpful in accomplishing the goal, said John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees most of the state schools.

With added funding that could help keep a tuition hike below 6 percent for the 2013-14 academic year, Morgan is optimistic that parents and students will see a little relief.

Haslam's plan, called "Drive to 55," is an effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with an associate's degree or higher from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025.

At his recent State of the State address, Haslam proposed a $35 million endowment that would provide nearly $2 million in additional scholarships each year and help "fill the gaps between students' financial aid and the real costs of college including books, supplies, room and board." He also recommended more than $300 million in additional spending for higher education facilities.

His proposals must be approved by the legislature, which can make changes.

'Breaking point'

The cost of attending college is increasing faster than prices in any other sector of the national economy, said Will Doyle, a Vanderbilt University professor whose research focuses on the rising costs of a college degree. His work shows a direct correlation between increased costs and decreased attendance.

Secondary education is necessary to live "a decent middle-class lifestyle," Doyle said. At the same time, the cost of obtaining that education is "pricing people out of the ability to get decent jobs. We've been saying (the two simultaneous trends) will converge. The breaking point has got to be getting closer."

In Tennessee and across the nation, state governments are contributing less to the cost of operating colleges and universities, and the cost burden has shifted to parents and students. In 1986-87, students paid about 28 percent of the cost of their education in Tennessee's public universities and colleges, according to figures supplied by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. Now, they are expected to pay 68.4 percent of the burden.

"The real downside is that when a student is faced with not putting the financing together and converting to part-time (student), they are not likely to be as successful," Morgan said. "The more it costs, the more hours you work, the harder to make it work."

'They were scared'

Williamson County father David Beahm paid for his education in the 1980s at Tennessee Technological University by working part-time at a department store. He was shocked at the price tag for his daughter's University of Tennessee education when she enrolled there four years ago.

"Something is going on out there," he said. "I've done well, but it takes a bite out of your pocketbook."

Many of Beahm's friends have borrowed money to send their kids to school. "What you see now is kids graduating with debt that used be for medical school," he said.

Tennessee has worked to keep debt down and ranks near the bottom of the national list when it comes to after-graduation debt, Morgan said.

In 2007-08, the average student debt after graduation from the University of Tennessee was $19,000, and in 2012, that amount fell to $18,400, said Katie High, vice president for academic affairs and student success for the university system of schools. "These are good numbers," she added.

India Ward, freshman class president for the TSU Student Government Association, said many students ask her for advice when they see money is drying up. "They were scared. They didn't know who to talk to."

TSU President Glover, who took office in January, made increased donations for scholarships her immediate focus, and her team whittled the number leaving school for financial reasons to about 10 this semester, she said.

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