Memphis’ economy showed signs of new life last year 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.
David Cox, executive assistant to U of M President Shirley Raines, has seen the shift in thinking and costs to students in his decades at the university. Drawing on his political science and urban governance expertise, he says, “At the time of the G.I. Bill, to a large extent, it was seen that expanding educational opportunities was a public good with benefits that went way beyond the individual. In the last 25 years, it moved from being seen as a public good to a private good.”
Perception became reality as the cost of an education was seen as the problem of the individual rather than the state. That’s particularly bad for Memphis where the U of M is the largest developer of talent in a region with one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. As a result, higher tuition has a doubly negative impact on Memphis at a time when the economic success of cities is tied to the presence of a highly educated workforce.
To complicate things, high Delta Air Lines airfares are ice on our economy’s wings, and the disconnect between the rhetoric of airport and economic development officials and the frustration voiced by the public only fuels widespread bitterness.
If most Memphians have a story about our music and barbecue, even more have stories about the pain of high airline ticket prices that are now customary, and only a few years ago would have been the cost of a flight to Europe. As the hub with the highest ticket prices and the airport in the top three for most expensive airfares, MEM is not so much an open door to the world’s economy as one that has been slammed and locked for many Memphians.
In other words, at the time every city needs to connect easily and freely with the rest of the world, we have a major barrier to entry, and the greatest irony of all is that in the city where FedEx invented modern global commerce, our citizens are priced out of full participation in the global and even the national market because of airfares.
The Memphis regional economy remains unsteady and much needs to happen right for it to improve its trajectory. That Memphians are being blocked from a university education by climbing tuitions and from full participation in the national economy by airfares unlevels the playing field at the exact time that we need for our economy to take off.