On the north end of the Nashville State Community College campus, a row of seven gray trailers comprises the M Buildings.
Most of the small modulars are tinged with rust along the outside edges, but students pursuing associates degrees and technical degrees attend classes in them every day. The Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs the operations at the college, described the trailers as “deteriorating.”
The combination of an enrollment boom and a halt in state funding over the past two decades has Nashville State in a tough spot. The school needs money from the state for a new $20 million academic building on the main campus to accommodate enrollment growth.
At the same time, the Governor’s Office is asking departments to brace for more budget cuts. According to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, which oversees both the Board of Regents and University of Tennessee Systems, a 5 percent decrease in funding would result in a tuition raise between 3 and 10 percent, depending on the type of institution.
And if Nashville State gets approval and state funding for a new academic building, it could cost students even more.
The plan for an academic building at Nashville State was first approved in 1998 and placed on the Board of Regents’ list of capital projects it submits to the state.
As the new century approached, funding for higher education in Tennessee shifted from the state to the student.
In November, Higher Education Commissioner Richard Rhoda told Gov. Bill Haslam during budget hearings that a decade ago, the state was providing most of the revenue for higher education. At community colleges, the state funded 70 percent of the cost, while student revenues accounted for only 30 percent of the revenue.
Now, those ratios have flipped.
“The tipping point for the community colleges was a couple of years ago. We held on as long as we could,” Rhoda said.
For higher education statewide, student tuition and fees account for 53 percent, the state provides 36 percent, and miscellaneous sales make up roughly 10 percent of the schools’ operating budgets.
The lower state appropriations have been coupled with a halt in state money for capital projects. Last year, TBR schools didn’t receive any money for new building projects.
In that same period, however, Nashville State’s enrollment has almost doubled. According to the TBR, the school’s full-time student equivalent has increased by 118 percent since 1993. The enrollment is 9,985.
Building and expansion at Nashville State has been far from stagnant over the past several years. In 2009, state appropriations paid for a new 60,000 square-foot Student Services Building on its main campus.
Earlier this year, the school entered into a contract to create a new Antioch campus at the former Dillard’s space in Hickory Hollow Mall. Metro contributed $1 million toward Nashville State’s acquisition.
But 13 years after the original request for a new academic building at NSCC, the plan hasn’t been touched.
On Sept. 28, Haslam and Rhoda sent a joint memo to the TBR and UT Systems, asking them to put together a priority list and five-year funding plan for capital projects. Rhoda also asked them to consider “matching fund” requirements.
“This exercise, while challenging, will be beneficial as the state ponders investments in capital projects over the next few years,” Rhoda said.
TBR Vice Chancellor David Gregory led an “internal working group” that prioritized 14 capital projects totaling more than $550 million. Nashville State’s academic building is No. 2 on the list.
The TBR and UT Systems worked together on a matching fund plan that would require different percentage matches based on the type of institution and the amount of donor dollars the schools receive.
Universities like UT-Knoxville and University of Memphis, for example, would be required to match 25 percent of the cost of a capital project, while community colleges like Nashville State would only have to match 10 percent.
But there are concerns regarding where the money will come from.
The TBR originally recommended a certain percentage of private donor money and “institutional funds” be used to match funds, but that plan was scrapped due to concerns from regents.
Now it’s up to each school to determine how to come up with the match funding — and that will have to pass TBR approval.
“Within each board, there is the flexibility to have the discussions [about match funding]. … The reason why that belongs at the governing board level is because of those reasons: Every institution and every project is not the same,” Gregory said.
For Nashville State’s much-needed $20 million academic building, the school would need to come up with $2 million.
In 2009 and 2010, NSCC received $200,668 and $218,543 from private donor money — the lowest amount of all the state’s community colleges.
“We understand that the state hasn’t had the money … but going back  years and then coming to the present and saying now we’re going to require a match: I don’t know how fair that is,” NSCC spokesman Keith Ferguson said.
So if the governor allocates capital project money to the TBR, but NSCC doesn’t have a cool $2 million in institutional funds to match, they might have to turn to their students.
“We are actually talking about increasing the burden … on the student to help build academic facilities, and that has long-term implications,” said Sidney McPhee, Middle Tennessee State University president and member of the TBR’s Ad Hoc Committee on Capital Outlay, at a TBR meeting on Nov. 15.
“In my mind, it’s a very threatening environment. … We are hearing that we need to have more students go to college but now we are also seeing that the public and the state doesn’t want to pay for the brick and mortar. I’m very concerned about that — that we’re trying to build on the backs of our students that can’t afford it.”
Gregory said each capital project’s method of funding would be handled on a case-by-case basis. He also said an increase in tuition or the implementation of a student fee would have to be approved by the board.
The TBR’s Ad Hoc Committee on Capital Outlay unanimously approved the match plan and capital project priority list at a teleconference meeting on Nov. 29. The plan will now be up for approval at the TBR’s quarterly meeting on Dec. 8.
THEC should receive the details of the plan the next day, then forward their recommendations to the governor’s office.
The first priority on the list is a $126 million science building at MTSU, which has been in the works just as long as the Nashville State academic building.
The TBR plans on asking the state to fund the MTSU science building in 2012-2013 to help unclog some of the list.
“The MTSU science building is a huge project,” Gregory said. “A lot of people have seen it bottlenecking other projects.”
According to Gregory, $15 million has already been put toward the planning and preparation of the MTSU building.
The TBR also proposes to start the planning process for five additional projects, including the one at Nashville State, next year using institutional funds, as long as the state acknowledges the projects in their budget.
If the proposal passes and the state approves, Nashville State will be committed to contribute $1.1 million to planning the project during the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
But even if the state acknowledges future capital projects in their budget, it’s not a
legal commitment to fund the projects in the coming years.
“You could have plans that could grow stale,” Gregory said. “If your plan doesn’t happen after three, four or five years, you’ve sunk some costs.”
On the bright side, though, a state commitment does “create a little momentum,” according to Gregory.
In the meantime, though, classes will continue in the trailers — and raising student costs might be the only way out.