Tennessee college work sets a national example, report says

Tennessee’s campaign to boost college success has made it a national education leader, according to a new report from Ivy League researchers, but the researchers warned that several problems stood in the way of unqualified success.

The report released Tuesday by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education tracked the progress made by Republican and Democratic governors who collaborated with college and business leaders to boost college enrollment and graduation over the last several years. Lead author Joni E. Finney said that collaboration, combined with the rapid-fire launch of support programs like the Tennessee Promise scholarship under Gov. Bill Haslam, has established a model other states should follow.

“Tennessee is a big experiment, and I think everybody in the country is watching,” Finney said, noting the constellation of forces that had aligned behind a singular goal.

But Finney said the state’s continued progress would depend on teamwork that persists after Haslam leaves office in 2018.

“The next race for governor will be very important in Tennessee,” Finney said. “The political leadership, you can’t understate the importance of having that in place for this agenda to be sustained and to move forward…. It’s amazing how much can be undone by a governor who doesn’t care or is somehow hostile to higher education.”

Celebrating success

The report highlights Tennessee’s progress on several fronts, including the launch of high-profile programs that would make community college tuition-free for almost every Tennessean without a degree. The researchers also praised the coordinated impact of Haslam’s Drive to 55, a statewide initiative to boost the number of Tennesseans with a college education.

Between 2009 and 2015, there was a 2.5-point jump in the percentage of young Tennesseans enrolled in college. The report said 38.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Tennesseans were in college in 2015 versus 36 percent in 2009.

Early data from Tennessee Promise has been positive, as high school graduates have poured into community and technical colleges tuition-free. The report noted the number of freshman coming to college for the first time jumped by more than 10 percent between fall 2014 and fall 2015, when the Promise launched. Over the same period, there was a 17-percent drop in students applying for federal loans.

And improvements in K-12 test scores and the high school graduation rate suggest more students are leaving the public school system prepared for college.

Mike Krause, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said he was encouraged by the “third-party evaluation” that emphasized positive movement in the state.

“You’ve got to measure it in terms of where we’ve come from,” Krause said. “They could not have written this five years ago.”

Lingering problems

But while the report lauded Tennessee’s approach and incremental improvements, Finney highlighted several lingering problems that she said need attention.

Despite the roll-out of Tennessee Promise and the Tennessee Reconnect program that would allow adults to attend community college tuition-free, the researchers said high costs might still be turning students away from higher education. For instance, the researchers found that from 2008 to 2015, tuition grew 51 percent at public universities and 45 percent at community colleges.

While more students have been flocking to community colleges, sending enrollment numbers soaring, graduation rates have stayed about the same. And graduation rates at four-year institutions between 2011 and 2015 decreased by 4 percent for black students and by half a percent for Hispanic students.

Black and Hispanic Tennesseans also are less likely than white Tennesseans to have a college degree. Thirty-six percent of white Tennesseans have an associate’s degree or higher. Among black Tennesseans that number stands at 26 percent, and only 18 percent of Hispanics complete any college.

Krause said the challenges noted in the report were the “exact areas that we know we need to focus on moving forward.”

Moving forward

Although researchers indicated cautious optimism for Tennessee’s slow but steady improvement, Finney said she wanted to see Tennessee invest in more support for its poorest and most vulnerable students, many of whom might be using Tennessee Promise and other programs to go to college.

“You don’t just admit these students and send them on their way,” she said. “Once you get them in you really have to take care of them to make sure they get through.”

She also said she was worried about the new independence of the six universities that recently moved out of the Tennessee Board of Regents college system. Each of those universities, including Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee State universities, held their first independent board meetings this spring.

Haslam has said the higher education commission would serve as a referee to ensure each university is working together, rather than competing. Finney said that would be a critical and challenging role — in other states, newly independent universities have taken steps to grow a national profile at the expense of local students.

“Once you untether these four-year public institutions,” she said, “they will push the limits of tuition, they will recruit more out-of-state students so that they can gain revenue and they’ll expand their programs probably beyond what they should.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and atamburin@tennessean.com or on Twitter @tamburintweets.


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