Conn, Seymour eye impact on 4-year, 2-year schools
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Feb 12, 2014 | 2451 views | 0 0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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A proposal made by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam last week to send students to community college for free has sparked a debate over how the state could go about making sure more people have college degrees.

During his “State of the State” address on Feb. 3 in Nashville, Haslam introduced a plan he called “Tennessee Promise” that will provide extra funding for college students, if passed by the state legislature.

“Tennessee will be the only state in the country to offer our high school graduates two years of community college with no tuition or fees along with the support of dedicated mentors,” Haslam said.

The plan would allow seniors graduating from public high schools or home-school programs to receive “last dollar funding” at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or the 27 colleges of applied technology, the nearest of which are in Athens and Chattanooga.

After students go through the usual college financial aid process, Tennessee Promise funding would cover any out-of-pocket costs left for them to pay.

Recipients of the funds would be required to work with an assigned mentor to navigate the college process, attend orientation meetings, perform eight hours of community service a semester, be a full-time student and maintain “satisfactory academic process,” per each college’s definition of that.

Haslam said the proposal would move the state closer to reaching its goal as part of the “Drive to 55” initiative to eventually get to the point where 55 percent of Tennesseans have college degrees of some kind by the year 2025.

To fund the program, Haslam has proposed setting up an endowment that would have lottery reserve funds transferred to it. Also being proposed is partnering with local nonprofit organizations to administer the program “to help ensure that 100 percent of the money goes directly to the student by eliminating administrative costs.” 

Tennessee Promise has been estimated to cost $34 million annually, according to the “Drive to 55” website.

How the Tennessee Hope scholarships funded by the state lottery would be distributed would also be impacted under the proposal. The scholarship amount for students of two-year colleges would increase from $2,000 a year to $3,000. However, the amount for four-year college students would receive would decrease from $4,000 a year to $3,000 during the freshman and sophomore years. After that the amount would increase to $5,000 a year for the junior and senior years.

It is a proposal that has so far been met by varied opinions from local college presidents.

Dr. Paul Conn, president of Lee University, said the plan “sounds good on the face of it.” However, he said leaders of four-year colleges generally found that the “good” is more on the side of community colleges.

“I do think we do not feel this is a good policy,” Conn said. “It basically helps community college students on the backs of our students.”

Dr. Bill Seymour, president of Cleveland State Community College, said he believed the plan would result in more students being able to earn college degrees for the first time.

“It’s a pretty exciting proposal,” Seymour said. “That’s a game-changer.”

Seymour said he believed it was “an expansion of the governor’s commitment” of making sure more people in Tennessee have college degrees.

Conn, who called himself a “big fan” of Haslam, said he was “wrong” on this matter.

Cleveland State officials have already looking at what might need to be changed if the proposal does become the law, Seymour said. The enrollment increase that could come with the passage of the Tennessee Promise plan would require the college to hire more faculty, revamp its class schedules and look into repurposing parts of its facilities to accommodate more classes, Seymour said.

If approved, Tennessee Promise’s 2015 start date will give the college enough time to make any necessary changes, he added.

Though students at his university would see a decrease in the amount of Tennessee Hope scholarship money they could receive during their freshman and sophomore years, Conn said his biggest concern was not a decrease in student enrollment. He said the biggest concern was that the state was emphasizing one type of higher education over the others.

“I’m not worried, but I don’t think it’s good policy,” Conn said.

He said high school seniors making plans to study at four-year schools could be set up for disappointment when they find out that a source for funding their tuition has shifted away from the first two years. It could “push them to community colleges where the prices are lower,” Conn said.

Though Lee is a private, Christian university, Conn said he believed it would hurt all four-year schools — even the ones that are governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, the same governing body over the state’s community colleges.

Comparing two TBR colleges in the same city — Chattanooga State Community College and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga — he said it would basically be a matter of shifting a group of prospective students from one college to another.

It’s not an issue of “public versus private,” Conn said. It’s the issue of two-year students receiving their college educations “at the expense of” their peers who choose to attend four-year colleges. He argued that, because personal finances play a large part in some students’ college decisions, this would likely have an impact on some colleges’ enrollment numbers.

“It’s going to cost that student $1,000 each of those two years,” Conn said. “It’s taking away from students who choose four-year schools.”

On the flipside, Seymour said he felt the Tennessee Promise proposal would mean more “equality” in the way state lottery-funded scholarships are distributed, as more of that money would be going to community college students.

Seymour pointed out that the amount of Tennessee Hope scholarships the students of four-year colleges would receive would be the same amount of money overall — just redistributed so that more money is awarded during the latter two years of a four-year degree.

“I like the fact that it creates an incentive program,” Seymour said. “It really is a matter of perspective.”

Conn said he was concerned about what the change in Tennessee Hope scholarships for four-year college students would mean for student retention during the first two years of work on a bachelor’s degree.

Lee offers tutoring and freshman “gateway classes” Conn said were design to help students adjust to and stay in college, but personal finances can also play a part in retention.

“What we want is for students to finish,” Conn said. “The biggest reason students do not persist is a lack of money.”

At the same time, community college students would be receiving more money to help pay their tuition money. Haslam said during his “State of the State” speech that the goal was to help students complete at least the first two years college.

Haslam said that the cost of pursuing a bachelor’s degree under his proposal meant the cost would be “cut in half.” It is possible that other students may not choose to move beyond their associate’s degrees, depending on their career choices.

“I am excited about it,” Seymour said, though admitting he could see why a four-year college president might have qualms about it. “I don’t see much negative in the plan. If I’m looking at the whole picture of higher education, it’s a good thing.”

Conn said he and his university did not have a problem with students receiving extra financial assistance to attend community college. The problem, he said, is “the double whammy” of the addition of the funding being given to community college students and the subtraction of the amount students of four-year schools would be able to receive under the Tennessee Hope scholarship.

The Feb. 3 announcement was the first time either of Cleveland’s college presidents had heard of the proposal.

Conn said he had not heard anything about the proposal until then and had not received any additional information on it within the first few days following the “State of the State” address. He said he was told he and other four-year college presidents would be getting new details on the proposed plan at a meeting in Nashville next week.

Seymour said he did not hear about the proposed plan until the address, but he was able to be part of a discussion on the announcement during a quarterly meeting for TBR presidents that has taken place since then. However, he said he was not surprised Haslam made such an announcement given his previous comments on the “Drive to 55.”

“He’s putting his actions where his words have been,” Seymour said.

Bills that could enact what has been formally named the “Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act of 2014” are being considered in the current session of the General Assembly.

House Bill 2491 sponsored by Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and companion Senate Bill 2471 sponsored by state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, outline the details of the proposed plan. Both bills have been forwarded to the state House and Senate’s education committees, and neither of them have been placed on a voting calendar yet.

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen had previously proposed a plan that would have provided free community college educations, but the 2007 proposal did not make it through the legislative process.

Until Tennessee knows what will happen with the Tennessee Promise proposal, questions remain in the minds of some of the state’s college presidents.

“Is this good for students, or is it good for them to have a choice?” Conn asked. “Is it fair, and is that good policy?”