The heads of Tennessee's two university systems said they could keep tuition increases low next year, but only if Gov. Bill Haslam agrees to increase the state's budget for higher education.
University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro and Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan said at a budget hearing at the state Capitol that they may be able to limit next year's rise in tuition to 4 percent or less. But the state would have to commit about $41 million more in tax dollars for operations.
The spending proposal comes amid rising concerns about the cost of higher education and a push by Haslam to drive up the number of college graduates in Tennessee.
"We want to keep our quality up at all of our institutions," DiPietro said Friday. "And while holding tuition increases in the single digits is admirable, if we can't keep our quality up because of other costs, it's a very difficult choice."
The plan developed by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which oversees both systems, would split next year's cost increases almost evenly between parents and taxpayers.
THEC recommends a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in tuition, which would raise about $24 million to $48 million. It asks the Haslam administration to contribute another $29.6 million for operations, as well as $11.6 million for the state's medical schools and agricultural units.
Morgan, who leads the Board of Regents' system of six state universities, 13 community colleges and 27 technology centers, endorsed THEC's recommendation. DiPietro was less definitive, saying the University of Tennessee system aims to keep tuition increases down to the "low to mid single digits."
University leaders said more money is needed to contend with cost increases built into the $2.2 billion higher education budget, such as cost-of-living adjustments and utility expenses. They also requested $31.7 million to increase need-based financial aid, $16.5 million for equipment at technology centers and community colleges, $213 million for construction projects and $115 million for renovations to existing facilities.
Even with an increase, tuition at Tennessee schools will remain comparable to other states in the Southeast, officials said. Students on UT's Martin and Chattanooga campuses pay an average of $1,800 in out-of-pocket tuition; those in Knoxville pay $3,500.
"We're very affordable," DiPietro said.
Higher education officials said their recommendations will help the state meet Haslam's goal of having 55 percent of the population hold a college degree or post-high school certification by 2025.
After the hearing, Haslam did not commit to their proposal.
"It's a reasonable request for them to make. Whether it's reasonable for us to fund that, I don't know," he said. "To keep tuition low, there's a need for the state to do its part. It's just too early for me to say yet whether we can do that."
The state budget for 2014-2015, which includes higher education spending, goes into effect July 1. Haslam is expected to present his budget in January.