Statement on Governor Haslam's Tennessee Promise Proposal
During Governor Haslam’s State of the State address this past Monday, he announced a bold new vision for higher education access called the ‘Tennessee Promise.’ This program will provide a recent high school graduate with a ‘last dollar’ scholarship which results in a free community college or a college of applied technology education. Both of these institutions play unique and key roles in achieving the Governor’s Drive to 55 initiative. The Drive to 55 plan has the proper and aggressive goal of having 55% of Tennesseans with a post-secondary credential by the year 2025.
Universities, however, play a key role as well. Currently, community colleges confer 16% of the degrees awarded in Tennessee among the public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. TICUA member colleges and universities enroll 26% of all students, yet award 36% of bachelor degrees, 47% of the masters, 51% of the professional and 43% of the doctorate degrees. Our institutions are committed to attaining the goal of the Drive to 55 initiative.
TICUA member campuses provide a high quality four-year collegiate experience that results in timely graduation. Their focus on developing critical thinking, effective communication skills, and collaborative problem solving experiences equip graduates, not for a job, but a lifetime of career options. Over the past few years the campuses have increased the number of innovative programs for adult learners and in response to the needs of local industry.
Governor Haslam is proposing to offer a free community college experience by redistributing the Tennessee Hope Scholarship program. His plan would increase the community college scholarship from $2,000 to $3,000. With an average tuition and fee cost of $3,787, very few ‘last dollars’ are needed to make it free. This is especially true since other non-payback aid, such as the Pell Grant (up to $5,730) and the Tennessee Student Assistance Award ($1,000) would need to be applied first. In other words, tuition and fees are already nearly covered for most recent high school graduates choosing a community college.
To pay for the increase in lottery funds for community college students, the Governor proposes decreasing aid to freshmen and sophomores attending four-year institutions. The Hope scholarship would decrease from $4,000 to $3,000 for these students. Students attending a TICUA member college or university would lose $7.7 million in scholarship support. This aid is critical in allowing students to choose the college or university that best fits their needs to be successful in their academic career. This shift in aid could result in significant access and affordability challenges which could negatively impact future enrollments at the university level. This past year, only TICUA reported enrollment increases while the public universities experienced a decline. This change could jeopardize enrollment at all four-year campuses - both public and private.
It is one thing to encourage enrollment at the community colleges but quite another to discourage enrollment at the four-year campuses. With TICUA colleges and universities contributing the largest number of degrees in the state, any proposal to adjust student aid should, at a minimum, do no harm and, at best, encourage Tennessee students to attend the university where they will be most successful. Reducing aid to freshmen looking at a university, while offering free community college, will no doubt harm four-year enrollments.
The plan also proposes to increase the junior and senior level scholarships from the current $4,000 to $5,000 in order to incentivize timely graduation. Not only is this an unproven theory of academic progression, it serves as an empty promise to students who are not able to enter the college or university of their choice in the first place. This component does provide a $5.4 million shift in aid from the freshmen and sophomore years to the junior and senior years, but the net result is still a $2.3 million LOSS in aid for students attending TICUA member institutions.
Universities are not two-year senior colleges, they are four-year universities. The ability of TICUA members to offer high quality courses with fully qualified faculty is predicated on a four-year design. While welcoming transfer students through generous transfer programs, the very nature and mission of many institutions may change with significant enrollment shifts. Many TICUA members enroll the students with the same profile as the community colleges but graduate them sooner with a four-year degree than the community colleges are able to do with only a two-year degree.
TICUA is supportive and fully engaged in the Governor’s Drive to 55 initiative, but crippling access to its member colleges and universities will threaten the goal of increasing the capacity of providing more degrees in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Promise needs to funded in a way other than shifting the Hope Scholarship from the universities to the community colleges. Each sector and institutional type needs to be respected and enabled to increase its capacity to award more certificates and degrees in the years to come. Simply funding one new program by taking critical student aid from another is not the answer. TICUA is supportive of new innovative approaches but they should do no harm to other important partners in Tennessee’s higher education landscape.