Editorial: Making college affordable in Tennessee

As the cost of college continues to increase, all of us in higher education have an obligation to work toward making it more affordable.

Fortunately, in recent years, higher education leaders in Tennessee have been at the forefront of policy and innovation designed to make college more accessible and affordable.

Nevertheless, student debt continues to spiral out of control. The New York Federal Reserve reports that student loan debt now surpasses $1.4 trillion. While student loan numbers are shockingly high, the first step to slowing their growth — or even reducing them — is to address the cost of college.

It’s undeniable that college is becoming less affordable every year. Tuition increases have outpaced inflation since 1970, and for public institutions, there is more competition for state funding every year.

Working together to raise awareness

At a time when the nation needs more college graduates, many current and prospective students are starting to question whether getting a degree will be worth the time, money, and for so many, the debt.

That’s why we — a vice president of financial aid for a nonprofit university, a chancellor of a Tennessee university, and an executive chancellor of policy and strategy for the Tennessee Board of Regents — are working together to raise awareness around the initiatives our organizations are doing to collectively expand access to higher education, improve college affordability, and create responsible borrowers.

Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly had the foresight in 2013 to launch the Drive to 55 — an initiative that seeks to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a post-secondary degree by 2025. The initiative was largely propelled by tuition-free community college for all high school graduates in Tennessee, but was recently expanded to extend the same offer to all adults in Tennessee without post-secondary degrees.

Although these new programs are showing early signs of success, and have become models for innovation in higher education used by other states, Tennessee still has a long way to go to make the Drive to 55 a success. At this point, it’s incumbent on Tennesseans to take advantage of these scholarships.

Naturally, for adults returning to school and first-generation college students — two critical segments for the success of the Drive to 55 — the process of applying for college can be daunting. Taking out loans for tuition, room and board, books, and other fees, is a big commitment that requires a high level of confidence in a return on investment.

With more than 75 combined years in higher education, we want to help Tennesseans who are considering enrolling in college by sharing our insights and answering questions at “Working Together to Make College Affordable in Tennessee,” a panel event on Sept. 12, at 6 p.m.

  • Bob Collins will discuss what Western Governors University (WGU) is doing to encourage responsible borrowing. WGU Tennessee, is an online, nonprofit university launched by Gov. Haslam as part of the Drive to 55. Collins is the university’s VP of Financial Aid and oversees its Responsible Borrowing Initiative — a program that has reduced student borrowing by 41 percent in only four years.
  • Dr. Russ Deaton will address issues around Tennessee’s policy innovations designed to create a better-educated workforce, such as the Tennessee Promise and TN Reconnect scholarships. Deaton is executive chancellor of policy and strategy for the Tennessee Board of Regents, and previously served as director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
  • Dr. Keith Carver, chancellor of UT Martin and former executive assistant to UT President Joe DiPietro, will share information about what the university and the UT system are doing to increase access to higher education while keeping tuition increases at historic lows.

Gov. Haslam, with support from the legislature, has given us a path for higher education success. Now it’s up to all of us — higher education professionals and students in Tennessee — to work together to achieve our goals. We hope you join us in person or via the live video stream on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

Bob Collins, Dr. Russ Deaton and Dr. Keith Carver are the featured speakers at “Working Together to Make College Affordable in Tennessee.” The panel discussion is co-hosted by WGU Tennessee, UT Martin and the Tennessee Board of Regents, and in partnership with The Tennessean. The event is being held at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, and will stream live on The Tennessean’s website on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m.


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