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Community college students face tuition hike; Bredesen says it’s still ‘a very good bargain’

Community college students face tuition hike; Bredesen says it’s still ‘a very good bargain’

Posted: Monday, August 25, 2008 10:40 pm
By: AP

By ERIK SCHELZIG Associated Press Writer NASHVILLE (AP) — Community college students face a tuition hike when they begin classes today, but Gov. Phil Bredesen says two-year schools “remain a very good bargain.” Not quite the same message as a campaign promise the Democrat made two years ago: free tuition for high school graduates who earn at least a C average. The Democratic governor had touted the free ride as a way to help improve people’s job skills and graduation rates as Tennessee looks for ways to improve employment opportunities — especially in rural areas. “The idea is to give students something to look forward to — in this case, a two-year degree that can lead to a good-paying job,” Bredesen told The Associated Press during the 2006 campaign. The free tuition plan was part of the governor’s legislative package the year following his landslide re-election, but it never seemed to capture the imagination of lawmakers on either side of the aisle, and other priorities took over. The governor has blamed resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate for killing the free tuition proposal. But he has been able to pass several other initiatives — like an increase in the state’s cigarette tax — over strong GOP opposition when he’s been willing to more aggressively work his agenda. The Legislature this year passed sweeping changes to the state’s lottery scholarship program, but once again the free-tuition plan wasn’t included. Bredesen conceded that scholarship changes that didn’t include money for the two-year school tuition amounted to “quite a departure” from his original plan. “Sometimes you have to take a half loaf and love it,” Bredesen said. The 6 percent tuition increase for community colleges followed cuts in the state’s higher education budget this year that were part of a larger reduction in the state spending plan needed to cope with a downturn in the economy. And without an obvious source of new revenue, it’s unclear where the state could find the estimated $25 million a year that the free tuition program would cost. Students at the state’s 13 community colleges pay about $2,500 in tuition and an average of about $265 in fees. Bredesen said students are nevertheless getting their money’s worth. “Community colleges remain a very good bargain where only a small fraction of the cost comes with a tuition payment,” Bredesen said in an interview this summer. “So it remains a very inexpensive way to get an education here in our state.” The tuition plan isn’t the only community college proposal the governor made in 2006 that hasn’t taken off. They included a fifth year of high school to obtain an associate’s degree and a retail management curriculum for big-box stores like Wal-Mart. Bredesen has blamed the Board of Regents, the governing body for community colleges and the four-year schools outside the University of Tennessee system, for failing to embrace those proposals quickly. But Bredesen has the opportunity to revive some of those efforts and put his mark on the Board of Regents following Chancellor Charles Manning’s decision to retire after this school year. And the governor says the free tuition plan isn’t dead. “I would love to come back around to that subject before I leave office,” he said. Published in the Messenger 8.25.08