Today, The White House released the President’s Plan to Make College More Affordable: A Better Bargain for the Middle Class. The President’s direction is confirmation that Tennessee higher education initiatives around affordability, accessibility, and success are at the forefront of shaping the national conversation. The report specifically refers to Tennessee as one of the “notable exceptions.” Becoming an exception did not happen overnight and the work is nowhere near finished. Bi-partisan efforts and bi-partisan leadership have been at the forefront of creative reform. Higher education leadership from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), The University of Tennessee System (UT), Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation (TSAC) have played an essential role in building an environment of collaboration that allows for ideas to grow to scale. Along with other institutions and organizations, as the director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN), I would, in all modesty, like to think that we played a little role as well.
Let’s look at some of the highlights of the President’s plan and see how they align with the policies and programs currently taking place in Tennessee:
1) President’s Plan – Central to his plan is performance-based funding. A higher education funding formula that bases college funding on graduating students instead of enrolling students. His plan includes awarding bonuses based on the number of Pell students being served.
- In January 2010, under the bi-partisan leadership of Governor Bredesen and the Tennessee legislature, Tennessee passed the Complete College Tennessee Act(CCTA), a comprehensive reform agenda that seeks to transform public higher education through changes in academic, fiscal and administrative policies at the state and institutional level. This act created a funding formula that rewarded colleges and universities for retaining and graduating students instead of basing funding on the number of students enrolled. Included in the formula are targeted sub-group populations, including Pell recipients.
2) President’s Plan – to encourage colleges to disburse student financial aid over the course of the semester as students face expenses, rather than in a lump sum at the beginning of the semester, so students who drop out do not receive Pell Grants for time they are not in school.
- In 2012, TCASN released Credentialed by 26: State Policy Recommendations for Tennessee. Recommendation #6 reads, “Explore financial aid “control” options that ensure resources above and beyond direct costs are distributed in installments rather than in a lump sum. Receiving all aid, especially loans, upfront often results in students spending the needed funds on non-higher education and non-basic living expenses. This lack of financial planning leaves many students unable to cover the cost of needs that arise later in the academic year, resulting in drop outs or further debt. Additionally, when students drop out of school, they still have access to their aid. There needs to be a way to ensure the money returns to the lender.”
3) President’s Plan – award college credit based on learning and not seat time.
- In this section, the President’s plan directly refers to Western Governors University and its “competency-based online learning system.” In July of this year, as part of his Drive to 55 initiative, Governor Haslam established Western Governors University Tennessee. WGU Tennessee was established to meet the needs of working adults who are looking to complete a bachelor's or master's degree to advance their careers.
4) President’s Plan - Use technology to redesign courses that integrate online platforms or blend in-person and online experiences that can accelerate the pace of student learning.
- Piloted in 2012 at four Tennessee community colleges, including one funded by a TCASN grant at Cleveland State Community College, Tennessee just launched SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support), in twelve of the thirteen community colleges across the state. Chattanooga State Community College provides leadership for the entire program. This program is a blended course that completely redesigns how community colleges teach development math and gives high school students in need of additional math work the opportunity to complete developmental math at the high school level instead of in college.
5) President’s Plan – Use technology for Student Services
- Here, again, the President’s plan specifically refers to Tennessee and the Austin Peay State University “Degree Compass,” system that “draws on the past performance of students in thousands of classes to guide a student through a course” of study.
6) President’s Plan – promote dual enrollment
- In addition to expanding dual enrollment opportunities, in February of 2013, the Community College Research Center (Teachers College, Columbia University) completed their policy recommendation study for Tennessee, Dual Enrollment for College Completion.Funded by TCASN, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Tennessee State Board of Education, Committee for Economic Development, Tennessee Business Roundtable, and The Kresge Foundation, this report outlines a pathway for improving dual enrollment opportunities across the state.
7) President’s Plan – better transparency and information about colleges
- Tennessee is engaged in numerous projects, programs, and initiatives to improve transparency and make the college-going process a reality for all of its residents. Each of these programs employs staff and mentors who break down the myths of higher education and help students find the best social, academic, and financial fit. Here are a few of the numerous programs making a difference in the lives of Tennessee students (both youth and adult): The Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, The Niswonger Foundation, tnAchieves, REDI, Graduate Memphis, GEAR UP TN, Oasis College Connection, CollegeforTN.org, TSAC, Martha O’Bryan Center Top Floor, Chattanooga Public Education Foundation (PEF).
- And I can’t help but mention the 41 programs using TCASN grant funds to serve their students better. This includes students from all ages and backgrounds including youth, adults, veterans, international students, and first-generation and low-income populations.
Tennessee must continue to lead the way on higher education reform. As Governor Haslam and his team lead the way with their Drive to 55 initiative, I feel confident we will.
Bob Obrohta is the executive director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of St. Francis (Joliet, IL) and a master’s degree in higher education administration from Teachers College, Columbia University (New York, NY).