Community college isn't for everyone, but in Tennessee it soon could be free for just about everyone.
Continuing his efforts to increase college completion, Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled an ambitious plan to offer two years of community college or technical school at no cost to all graduating high school seniors. He plans to use reserve lottery funds and restructure Hope scholarships -- decreasing the amount freshmen and sophomores receive at four-year institutions and increasing the award for juniors and seniors.
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen pitched a similar plan in 2006 but got no traction.
Most are lauding Haslam's plan as a game changer for college access. If the proposal is approved, the financial barrier to getting an associate or technical degree will practically vanish overnight, opening up opportunities to those who were previously priced out of college. And students who start at community college could see the price of a bachelor's degree slashed in half.
But putting such an incentive on community colleges raises some questions.
Can community colleges and technical schools physically handle the capacity of all the students who may want to attend?
Will fewer freshmen and sophomores choose four-year colleges?
Dubbed "Tennessee Promise," the plan is part of the governor's Drive to 55, an effort to increase the state's college attainment rates to 55 percent by 2025. That push is primarily an economic development strategy, as scholars predict more than two-thirds of the nation's jobs in 2020 will require some sort of education beyond high school. Currently, only 32 percent of Tennesseans have a post-secondary certificate or degree.
The Drive to 55 is aimed at not just funneling more people into higher education, but fundamentally changing the pathways to degrees. The governor has rolled out WGU Tennessee, an inexpensive online-only college. Colleges are participating in a reverse-transfer program, awarding associate degrees to students who have transferred on to four-year institutions.
Community colleges are considered a key to increasing overall degree attainment because of their affordability, flexible class schedules and many locations throughout the state.
Higher education officials and experts said the latest effort is promising.
"This gives students an opportunity, gives them hope that they can afford college, when they thought the financial barriers would keep them out," said Stacy Lightfoot, vice president of college and career success at the Public Education Foundation. "It's grabbing a ton of students who don't end up going to college now. But it also propels students who probably would have stopped at community college to go further. Because now they'll believe college is affordable."
But it's not a panacea for getting more people through college.
"I think it's amazing. But it's amazing for students who are interested in going to two-year colleges," Lightfoot said
PEF staff members work with Hamilton County high school students, helping them with college selection, admittance and financial aid. Lightfoot said students all have different needs when it comes to college. Some will thrive at community colleges. Others will do best at a small liberal arts college far from home. And some are drawn to flagship research universities.
"They're shopping for a college that suits them socially, academically and emotionally," she said. "Not every college is the same. They don't look the same. They don't feel the same."
Since announcing the effort at Monday's State of the State address, Haslam's plan has come under fire from critics.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, who led the creation of Tennessee's lottery and Hope scholarship program, said the governor's plan would discourage attendance at the state's top universities.
"Over the last 10 years, the Hope Scholarship program that I worked for 20 years as a state senator to create has been an unparalleled success," Cohen told The Tennessean. "But the governor's 'promise' actually cuts funding from high-achieving students beginning four-year degree programs."
Cohen argues that the state should invest surplus lottery funds into current Hope scholars, because their scholarships have not kept up with the rising costs of college tuition.
At its peak, the maximum HOPE award covered about three-quarters of the average price of tuition and fees at public universities and community colleges in 2006-07. In 2012-13, the maximum HOPE award barely covered half of the average cost, according to a 2013 Tennessee Higher Education Commission report.
By eliminating financial barriers, Haslam spokesman David Smith said, the state is sending a message to potential students and businesses that higher education is valued. The bottom line, he said, is that more Tennesseans will earn post-secondary degrees and certificates.
"The point of the proposal is to bring more people into the system," he said.
Cleveland State Community College President Bill Seymour said Tennessee's focus on higher education is setting a national example.
While it's likely that the Tennessee Promise effort will increase enrollment at community and technical colleges, Seymour said it could also boost attendance at four-year institutions.
"I think the main thing from these changes is that it's going to put more students into the pipeline, and I think a lot of students will take advantage of the opportunity to come to a community college, but they'll go on to a four-year degree as well," Seymour said.
If underclass enrollment drops, four-year schools could be forced to make big changes in on-campus dining and student housing facilities -- both typically dominated by freshmen.
But so far, the state's large universities don't seem too concerned over the plan.
Both the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the flagship UT campus in Knoxville have big plans for expansion. In Knoxville, a $59 million, 250,000-square-foot residence hall is nearing completion. Plans call for spending $234 million to replace six residence halls with seven new facilities over the next five years.
UTC Chancellor Steve Angle wants to increase enrollment from the current total of 11,674 to 15,000. But there's already a need for more student housing. This fall, 126 students were housed in hotel rooms because of packed dorms. And officials are eyeing a state office building downtown as a site for future dorm rooms.
Officials don't anticipate a drop in enrollment, but it's too early to know how what the impact of Tennessee Promise will be on college enrollment rates.
"If the freshman class goes down, we may have to make changes in course selection, housing options and dining options," said Katie High, the University of Tennessee system's vice president of academic affairs. "We'll be looking at that over the next couple of months."
University leaders are betting that students will consider more than just the bottom line when choosing a school.
For many, college is about more than just getting an education. Students who go away to a four-year school often find new-found freedom and responsibility. It's an experience.
And that experience is often tough to replicate at community colleges.
Debra Sells, vice president for student affairs and vice provost for enrollment at Middle Tennessee State University, said many students are looking for more than just a good deal on college. They choose MTSU because of the faculty, facilities and lifestyle that comes with attending a four-year university.
Though Haslam is proposing a restructuring of Hope Scholarships, students who go to a four-year college would still receive the same amount -- $16,000 -- over four years. So the bottom line remains the same for them.
"It should still be as much of a possibility as ever," she said. "For those students for who now have the ability to save those costs, they now have that as another option to consider. But for many students, there are some issues beyond what the least expensive alternative is."
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