Tennessee is poised to take a step forward in educational achievement with implementation of Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to offer tuition-free community college access to adults as well as recent high school graduates.
The governor’s Tennessee Reconnect Act would build on the Tennessee Promise scholarship program for high school graduates as well as the TCAT Reconnect scholarship program, which provides free technical college for adults.
And like Tennessee Promise, its estimated $10 million cost would be met with state lottery proceeds.
Establishing Tennessee as the only state in the nation to offer free community college classes for adults as well as recent graduates, it’s also an image booster for the state.
By itself, of course, Tennessee Reconnect would be hard pressed to achieve the educational achievement goal set out by Haslam – to get a post-secondary degree or certificate into the hands of 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans by 2025.
Too many Tennessee high school students are still graduating without the knowledge and skills they need to handle college-level work, a factor that is putting a strain on the state’s higher education system.
Too many schools struggling to meet basic standards of proficiency still are not receiving state funding levels that were defined in the state’s Basic Education Program formula.
And to meet the needs of a new flock of adult students, the state’s community college system would have to adapt, offering more night and weekend classes as well as courses that would help people who have been out of school for years, in some cases, get up to speed with changing educational standards.
More help is needed for recent high school graduates, as well. As Haslam was announcing the proposal to expand community college access, the Tennessee Department of Education announced that about a third of the state’s high school graduates were awarded degrees without meeting stringent graduation requirements – a situation that clouds the state’s vaunted 88.5 percent graduation rate.
But the new opportunities represented by Tennessee Reconnect could significantly improve the educational and economic landscape in a community like Memphis, where about 25 percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher and the median household income in 2013 was $7,500 below the statewide average.
A recent analysis by the personal-finance website WalletHub ranked Tennessee 38th from the top for high-school diploma holders, 45th for associate’s degree holders or college-experienced adults, 41st for bachelor’s degree holders and 37th for residents with a graduate or professional degree.
More than 2 million adult Tennesseans could be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, which, like Tennessee Promise, is a last-dollar program, meaning that state dollars would be used to cover tuition only after all available federal aid is applied.
With no income or past academic performance eligibility requirements, it could provide an incentive for more than 900,000 Tennesseans who have some college credit but no degree to go back to school.
Adults who had only toyed with going to college could be persuaded to give the idea more serious consideration.
And Tennessee could be better prepared to meet the 21st Century workforce needs of the state’s existing and prospective employers.