Governor unveils higher ed reform

Gov. Phil Bredesen's final plan to dramatically overhaul the state's higher education system will eliminate college remedial education in three years, mandate statewide transfer agreements and require colleges to set and meet goals to improve graduation rates, records show.

"Tennessee is at a unique moment in its higher education history," according to a document sent by the governor's office to state legislators. "With so much at stake, the governor and the Tennessee General Assembly can seize on the opportunity to modernize and dramatically improve higher education."

The plan, called Complete College Tennessee, is the crystallizing of more than a year of political and internal debate about the future of the state's colleges and universities.

Plummeting tax revenue forced the state to cut funding to colleges, pushing the state's two higher education systems -- the University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents system -- into a budgetary tailspin.

When federal stimulus aid disappears in 2012, the UT system alone will be left with a $110 million financial hole.

At the same time, the two systems have been criticized for oversized administrations, wasteful spending and failing to move students to graduation day.

Gov. Bredesen and his hand-picked committee of state legislators have met for months with national higher education experts, crafting an outline for reform. Complete College Tennessee was developed with the recommendations of Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a nonprofit organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and working to improve states' graduation rates.

"People are uncomfortable with change," said Mr. Jones, who will be in Nashville promoting the plan this week. "The more they hear about it and about strategies, the more comfortable they will be."

Several points of the plan, now being presented to legislators for the first time, will require legislative action in the education special session that begins today, officials said.

"The recommendations contained in the report are expansive," Pat Miller, a senior advisor and director of legislative affairs, wrote to the higher education task force. "The bill itself will touch on a few key issues that we believe warrant legislation, including the funding formula, statewide transfer policies, and other strategies for improving college completion."

Under the governor's plan, thousands of students who have been taking remedial or developmental courses at universities would be forced to take those classes at community colleges. With high schools adopting college prep curriculum for students graduating in 2013 under the American Diploma Project, colleges should discontinue remedial classes in three years, according to the plan.

By the Numbers* 60 percent of students entering community colleges start in remedial courses* 12 percent -- average three-year graduation rate at community colleges* 46 percent -- average six-year graduation rate at four-year colleges* 9 percent -- three-year graduation rate at Chattanooga State* 58 percent -- six year graduation rate at the University of Tennessee* 42 percent -- six year graduation rate at UTC* 13 percent -- three year graduation rate at Cleveland StateSource: Complete College AmericaThe plan for higher education reform* Develop campus graduation plans. State should adopt common progress and completion measures and report on schools progress in annual public reports.* Implement performance funding. Reward institutions financially who increase their graduation rates.* Create statewide transfer agreements. Students transferring with associate degrees should have junior-level status at four-year universities.* Make dual admission and dual enrollment to community colleges and four-year schools widely available to students intending to transfer.* Establish the Tennessee Community College System with a common course catalog and numbering. Increase the HOPE lottery scholarship from $2,000 to $3,000 for community college students. Build limited dorms on two-year campuses.* Reduce remedial and developmental instruction by eliminating those classes at universities.Source: Complete College America

Dual enrollment and strict statewide transfer agreements would make movement between two-year and four-year schools seamless, officials said.

Jim Catanzaro, president of Chattanooga State Community College, said community colleges are better equipped and prepared to teach remedial and developmental courses than four-year schools. Of the 11,400 students enrolled at Chattanooga State, 75 percent are required to complete remedial work, he said.

Fifty percent of entering freshman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga take developmental classes, and Dr. Catanzaro said Chattanooga State has the capacity and resources to welcome those students.

"The teachers that we have to teach developmental and remedial classes have been hired to do that," said Dr. Catanzaro.

Handing the task of remedial and development classes to community colleges, "will lead to major improvements in the number of college graduates in the state," he said.

But university officials are more skeptical. Some say ideas such as dual enrollment and eliminating four-year college development coursework may actually hurt graduation rates.

"That creates a bigger obstacle working out a class schedule for a student attending two colleges," said University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Provost Phil Oldham. "Dealing with two separate classroom environments can be tricky. That is an obstacle for the student. How would financial aid be worked out?"

System leaders with UT and the Board of Regents say they support the governor's sweeping final proposals but worry that the devil is in the details.

"We are absolutely supportive of the concept," said Hank Dye, a spokesman for the UT system. "But as the governor has said, one size doesn't fit all. You have different kinds of campuses with different kinds of missions. It requires some careful thinking."

Bolstering Tennessee's college graduation rates is crucial for economic development, officials said. Tennessee is ranked 40th in the country for bachelor's degrees and 45th in the country for associate degrees.

Increasing the state's overall graduation rate to 38 percent, the national average, would require an additional 20,000 graduates per year. Those graduates would earn $6 billion in additional wages each year, generating as much as $400 million in additional tax revenue for the state, Mr. Jones said.

"There's much room for improvement," Mr. Jones wrote in the Complete College America plan for Tennessee. "For too long, Tennessee has lagged the country in completion of bachelor's degrees."

Dr. Oldham said graduation rates won't turn around overnight.

"(They) don't turn around on a dime; its more like an ocean liner," he said. "You can't say within two years you are going to increase your graduation 20 percent. You have got to really set some long term goals and look at mid-term progress."

Tennessee state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, told the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club Monday that he thinks lawmakers should adjourn the special session as soon as they have finished looking at K-12 issues and send higher education debate into the regular legislative session.

"The governor would like to go ahead and push through higher education reform, literally in the next week," he said. "We haven't seen the bill yet. He wants to stampede it through."

Matt Wilson contributed to this report.

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