Editorial: College tuition freeze sounds good, but is impractical and unwise

Jul. 25, 2013 @ 11:28 PM

In a perfect world, a freeze on college tuition would be a great idea, certainly one welcomed by beleaguered parents trying to send a child to get some higher education. In fact, though, tuition pays for everything that isn’t covered by appropriations. The costs of running an institution like the University of Tennessee or Austin Peay or Walters State keep rising, zooming past the income, while government appropriations fluctuate.

A Republican state lawmaker says he wants to freeze tuition at Tennessee’s colleges and universities despite criticism from education officials that such a proposal would eliminate funds needed to sustain essential programs and basic operation.

Republican Sen. Jim Summerville of Dickson plans to file legislation during the next session to keep tuition at the current rates for several years. The Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee system recently adopted tuition hikes ranging from 3-6 percent. It seems tuition goes up every year at colleges and universities, so a freeze would be nice.

Just not practical, despite Summerville’s point of view. “The current increases are an outrage, especially in light of this year’s increase in appropriations to ... higher education systems,” he said in a prepared remarks.

Here is the counter-argument. Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan, noting Gov. Bill Haslam’s $100 million appropriation to higher education in this year’s budget, said colleges and universities are grateful for that, but “one year of increased funding doesn’t undo the many years’ worth of reduced state appropriations that have shifted the funding of public higher education away from the state and onto our students.”

He said freezing tuition hikes could adversely affect essential higher education programs, as well as one of Haslam’s main education plans.

Only one in three Tennesseans has a two-year degree or higher, and Haslam’s goal is to raise that number to 55 percent by 2025. A noble objective, but it won’t abate the rising costs of running a college or university., Summerville’s plan appeals to the masses and puts the institutions on the defensive, but he surely knows a tuition freeze is impractical and unwise.

“Just 10 years ago, state funds made up more than 50 percent of the University of Tennessee’s budget,” UT said. “Today, state funds make up about 30 percent of the University’s budget. Meanwhile, the university’s fixed costs for utilities, equipment, and maintenance, for example, have been ongoing and increasing.”

A college education is important, but it remains an option, not a necessity. Kids and their parents will just have to fund ways to meet the expenses in pursuit of a degree. That’s the sad truth. No legislation can change it.