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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Interim President of the University of Tennessee system, Randy Boyd, visited the Times Free Press on December 18, 2018.

The University of Tennessee isn't usually listed among the most elite and select colleges in the annual listings of the best universities, but UT Interim President Randy Boyd said that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

In a speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club Thursday, Boyd stressed that Tennessee's flagship and land grant university is trying to be as accessible as possible for state residents to enter and graduate college with a useful degree and with as little student debt as possible.

"The primary mission of land grant universities like the University of Tennessee is to be a ladder up for working class and middle-class people," said Boyd, who was the first person in his family to graduate from college when he earned his degree at UT-Knoxville in 1979 and went on to build Radio Systems Corp., into a $400 million-a-year pet fence manufacturer. "That's our mission at the University of Tennessee. We're not supposed to be Yale or Harvard."

Boyd took exception with the praise offered in some college lists for how restrictive admissions is at elite schools which tend to be too expensive or academically demanding for most people.

"That's not who we are or what our mission is," the UT president said. "Our mission is not exclusivity; our mission is to be as inclusive as possible and to provide as much opportunity as possible for more students."

Boyd helped launch the Tennessee Achieves in Knoxville in 2008 and the statewide Tennessee Promise in 2014 to provide free two-year community college for most students while working with former Gov. Bill Haslam. As the interim president of UT, Boyd is now trying to improve access to Tennessee's biggest 4-year university system with the UT Promise program launching in the fall of 2020.

The UT Promise will cover tuition and and fees for students with family incomes of $50,000 or less a year and provide those students a volunteer mentor to help them succeed. The last-dollar scholarship program, which will pay for tuition and fees beyond other federal and state scholarship already available, is expected to include about 2,000 or the roughly 51,000 students in all UT colleges across the state next year, Boyd said.

"With this program any student that is academically qualified to attend one of our schools won't have a financial barrier to attending UT," Boyd said. "We also hope this will help more students stay in college and ultimately graduate from college."

Being able to market a college education as tuition free should help draw more persons into college and help the state achieve its "drive to 55" — the goal set by former Gov. Bill Haslam to have 55% of the state's adult population with either a college degree or vocational certification. Tennessee's share of college or degree-certified adults has increased from 34% to 42% since the program was launched more than five years ago.

"In too many homes in Tennessee, people think college is too expensive or not for them," Boyd said. "With this program, we hope we can change those conversations and change the culture of low expectations."

Boyd said UT is working hard to maintain its affordability, noting that tuition this fall is scheduled to rise from 2% in Knoxville to 2.5% in Chattanooga. It will be the fifth year that UT tuition has risen less than 3%.

"We have to find efficiencies in every place that we can in order to keep our costs down," Boyd said. "The tuition increases are primarily to provide more student support to make sure more student show up and graduate with more counseling, more faculty in key courses. Across the system, there is a huge emphasis on helping more students to graduate on time with less debt."

Boyd said 46% of students graduating from one of the University of Tennessee colleges have no student debt and 25% of graduates come out of school with under $24,000 in debt.

A study last year by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research estimates that the University of Tennessee has a $9 billion-a-year economic impact on the state. But Boyd said the biggest benefits of getting more Tennesseans educated with college degrees will come from the improved earnings and lifestyles for graduates "for generations to come."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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