JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University (ETSU) may have to rely on the legislative budget process if its multi-year efforts to secure some state funding for the Gatton College of Pharmacy are to prove successful at last.

In-state tuition at the privately funded school, at around $39,000, is about 70% higher than tuition at the University of Tennessee pharmacy school in Memphis.

Like other Tennessee gubernatorial budget requests before it, Gov. Bill Lee’s fiscal 2024 proposal has a zero for the recommended amount of funding for Gatton — though the school’s dean is holding out hope the privately funded college may get a nod in Lee’s supplemental budget.

“It would have been nice,” Rep. Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville) told News Channel 11 in reference to a positive nod from the Lee administration. During last year’s legislative session, Hicks led an unsuccessful effort to get the 17-year-old pharmacy school a recurring state supplement of about $2.9 million annually.

But Gatton Dean Debbie Byrd saw glimmers of hope in Lee’s remarks at his state of the state address Monday. Lee continued a focus on helping the state’s rural areas, and Gatton focuses on sending new pharmacists into rural Appalachia where pharmacist positions tend to be difficult to fill.

Gatton College of Pharmacy Dean Debbie Byrd said she’s still hopeful state funding for the privately funded but publicly managed school can be approved in the coming fiscal 2024 Tennessee budget. (WJHL photo)

“The things that he talked about really do resonate with us and what we’re trying to do to serve rural folks and have accessibility and affordability so people can take care of one another here,” Byrd said.

She said ETSU representatives lobbied legislators just last week, continuing to push for recurring funding to close the tuition gap and pointing to a current nationwide pharmacist shortage.

“We hope to continue those conversations with him and his office,” she said. “We want to be able to lower tuition from a fairness perspective, but there’s (also) a pharmacist shortage now and it’s significant.”

Why the tuition gap?

Northeast Tennessee leaders gained approval for the school from then-governor Phil Bredesen on the condition that it be self-supporting and not rely on state money to help maintain competitive tuition costs for students.

Enrollment stayed in the 300-plus range for more than a decade after it opened in 2005, but that changed several years ago.

A steep enrollment decline began several years ago and coincided almost directly with an additional state supplement that allowed the state-supported UT College of Pharmacy in Memphis to reduce out-of-state tuition by 35%, or nearly $15,000 a year.

Memphis’ out-of-state tuition went from more than $42,000 in 2018-19 to just over $27,000 in 2019-20, while Gatton’s tuition stayed at $37,916.

Since then, Gatton’s enrollment has dropped each year, from 298 in the 2019-20 year to 211 in the current year. The fourth-year class that graduates this spring is the last holdover from higher entering numbers, so if trends hold, the school’s enrollment could easily drop below 200 next fall.

“We hear often from students that this is their college of choice, but they have to make a difficult decision to attend another college whether it’s here in Tennessee or another state because of tuition,” Byrd said.

A 2019 funding bump for UT’s pharmacy school at Memphis made the disparity between tuition there and ETSU’s Gatton College of Pharmacy much more significant. (WJHL photo)

She said the funding request is now about $5.1 million. That would be enough to put the two Tennessee colleges’ tuition on an equal footing.

The push for funds has intensified if anything, with Rep. John Holsclaw (R-Elizabethton) telling News Channel 11 last fall “we’re going to go see the governor and push for it that way.”

Hicks said someone from the Northeast Tennessee delegation will again carry an effort forward to get an annual appropriation approved if Lee doesn’t include funding in his supplemental budget.

Byrd said the college has budgeted conservatively as enrollment dropped. An existential crisis would be a number of years off if it came at all, she said.

“We have reserves to help us get through a difficult time, but there would come a point eventually — not two or three years, it’s a little longer term than that … we’re ready for a time.”

Byrd said pharmacy school enrollment dropped several years ago on a national level as well in response to a surplus of newly minted pharmacists. That came after schools expanded or new ones opened in the 2000s. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, she said.

“We want to make sure that we can meet the needs and that’s my concern, because, even let’s say this fall I have a class of 80. That’s one class of 80, and it’ll be four years before they graduate. So it’ll take years for us to begin to meet the needs.”

State Rep. David Hawk (R-Greeneville) said he expects Lee to release his supplemental budget in late March or early April.