Academics and Airfare

Two factors could derail any chances our city has for improving its fortunes.

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Memphis’ economy showed signs of new life last year with the creation of 32,500 jobs, but whether it is sustainable depends in large measure on the presence of talented workers easily connected to national and global economies.

Two troubling factors throw a shadow over the sunny economic outlook: climbing tuition costs at the University of Memphis and the high cost of Delta Air Lines tickets at Memphis International Airport. The tuition is a major barrier to developing the talented workforce that attracts high-wage, high-skill jobs, and some of the nation’s highest airfares are a heavy drag on the Memphis economy.

Tuition hikes at the U of M have become a yearly event, and the traditional funding formula where one-third of costs came from tuition and two-thirds came from state funding has been turned upside-down. Baby boomers were outraged in the late 1960s when tuition broke $100 a semester, and yet, when they stood in line to get diplomas, they had spent less than $1,000 in tuition for all four years.  

Today, tuition for one semester is closing in quickly on $4,000, and despite the rhetoric of Tennessee governors about their top priority being economic development, cuts to the budgets of state universities continue, a trend that found momentum during the terms of Phil Bredesen. In the last three years of his administration, the budget for the schools in the Tennessee Board of Regents system, which includes the University of Memphis, was cut 25 percent. It amounted to $186 million in reductions, and with no option to sue the state for non-support, the university had little choice but to shift those costs to students. 

If there is one compelling lesson to be drawn from the baby boomers, it is how quality, affordable higher education propels the economy. However, we now live in an age of economic impact statements and nothing seems to matter unless it has one. It’s no longer enough to cite benefits to society. There has to be a dollars-and-cents validation, even if it’s the arts, the riverfront, or a university education.  

If there is one compelling lesson to be drawn from the baby boomers, it is how quality, affordable higher education propels the economy.
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