By Jeff Keeling
Bill Haslam’s unveiling of the “Tennessee Promise” proposal during his Feb. 3 State of the State address drew broad attention for its boldness, but it wasn’t a shock to Northeast State Community College President Dr. Janice Gilliam.
“I was excited that it was as far-reaching as it was,” Gilliam said of the proposal to make community college tuition-free for Tennesseans coming directly out of high school, using lottery funds.
Haslam’s proposal, which became law last month after some compromise with four-year institutions, has a fan in Gilliam. Four-year college administrators such as Milligan College President Dr. Bill Greer are, unsurprisingly, reserving judgment.
If it works, the program will help Tennessee make strides in its “Drive to 55” effort to increase the number of state residents with post-secondary diplomas or certificates to 55 percent. It will improve the state’s workforce and economic competitiveness. And it will do these things with minimal negative impact on four-year institutions that fear the possibility of unintended consequences. If Tennessee Promise has hiccups, those could include greater-than-anticipated overhead costs and too little money to pay for them, as well as problematic enrollment declines at four-year schools.
Serving the “neglected majority”
Gilliam’s best-case scenario would see Northeast State grow quickly by about 10 percent, or 600 to 700 students. In a perfect world, those students would be high schoolers – Tennessee Promise is available only to graduating high school seniors who begin the process in the fall of their senior year – who might not have pictured themselves going to college at all.
Gilliam calls that group, which could help boost the Drive to 55 without siphoning students away from four-year schools, the “neglected majority.”
“Right now there are a lot of very good paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, but that require more the technical skills,” Gilliam said. “It’s very good return on the investment, especially if it’s free, to get a good paying job.”
Kathy Pierce oversees the Alliance for Business and Training, and echoed Gilliam’s assessment of the job market.
“Many of our partners in the business world have aging workforces that are going to need to be replaced,” Pierce said. “We’re still analyzing Tennessee Promise, but if it produces more skilled workers to fill those retirees’ positions, that will be a positive.”
One challenge for Northeast State will be getting members of that “neglected majority” to complete the process required to qualify for Tennessee Promise. That’s something Pierce’s agency is familiar with, as they handle some grant programs aimed at enhancing achievement among students whose first thought may not be college. To be Tennessee Promise eligible, students must declare in the fall of their senior year of high school. That program is slated to begin next fall, allowing for the first incoming community college freshmen in fall 2015.
“We’re going to need more coaches, tutors and support staff,” Gilliam said, adding that in other areas the college can absorb the growth since it ramped up during the recession.
Four-year schools in wait and see mode
For his part, Milligan’s Greer hopes the program delivers on Gilliam’s preferred scenario. The alternative, he said, could be numbers of Tennessee high school seniors deciding to take advantage of two free years toward a four-year degree. Greer meets regularly with Gilliam, and Milligan gets some good transfer students from Northeast State, he said, but the second scenario would be a negative for everyone in the long run. That’s one reason the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association fought for and won a compromise on changes to the HOPE scholarship. Instead of shifting from $4,000 per year for four years to $3,000 for the first two and $5,000 for the last two, the scholarship will be $3,500 for two years and $4,500 for the junior and senior years.
Greer is quick to express support for growth at two-year schools, but said a “both/and” solution would be preferable to an either/or.
“We need welders, but quite frankly, the future isn’t as much in manufacturing as it is in a lot of other fields, and we’re cutting ourselves short by not more fully funding four-year and beyond education,” Greer said.
“We need professionals, we need researchers, we need scientists, we need computer programmers, accountants, and finance people, and businesspeople, and doctors and lawyers.
“We need all of those people to have a good, broad workforce – not just production line workers. I’m not saying there’s a thing wrong with that, but we’re cutting the availability of funds for people to pursue the more advanced degrees.”
Gilliam hopes Greer’s feared unintended consequences won’t materialize, and that Tennessee Promise’s benefits will far outweigh any drawbacks.
“There’s a huge need for more skilled workers, and as we grow our workforce that attracts more industry.”
Of the target students, she said, “All they need is to have an understanding of what they can do, and get the confidence after they’re successful the first semester or two to know they can do this. I think that’s the biggest challenge for the students.”