Complete to compete…or else!

Published 10:09 am Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam has been making the headlines during his gubernatorial tenure for education reform in Tennessee. His most notable higher education effort has been to make community colleges free for all Tennesseans under the banners of “Tennessee Promise” and “Tennessee Reconnect.” Creating a culture of completion is admirable. Haslam’s most recent higher education initiative, however, does this by punishing students.
Haslam’s “Complete to Compete” proposal requires students to take 30 semester hours in 12 months (30-12) or risk losing up to $500 in scholarship aid the following year. The fundamental assumption with the proposal is that students don’t want to complete on time; therefore, the threat of taking away future student aid must be made in order to motivate students toward completion.
The most recent data indicate that students utilizing Haslam’s free community college effort have a low 30-12 going rate of 30%. This suggests that when an education is free, there must be additional motivators to encourage students to complete.
However, the state’s private four-year colleges and universities and the University of Tennessee system have a 30-12 going rate of more than 70%. How is it that these students exceed the goals that the “Complete to Compete” proposal hopes to attain? Well, it’s not because they were threatened.
There is a better way to create a culture of completion:
First, good preparation. Adequately prepare students for college work through a strong K-12 program and make remediation accessible and robust. Haslam is proposing to make the state’s remediation programs stronger, an effort that should enable success.
Second, excellent advisement. Most four-year campuses have aggressive course advisement support and at-risk student intervention systems. Haslam is proposing to fund additional academic counselors for the community colleges. This positive strategy will go a long way toward increasing on-time completion.
Third, ensure proper course sequencing and availability. Four-year campuses seek to ensure that courses are offered at the times students need them in order to complete on time. Haslam is proposing the adoption of a “set curriculum,” for students attending the state’s community colleges to expedite on-time completion. This strategy will do more to assist with better graduation rates than the threat of reducing a student’s financial aid.
Fourth, many four-year campuses offer banded tuition. The tuition charge is the same for students if they take 12 to 15 hours per semester. The “no cost” additional course offering often entices students to take additional courses to assist with on-time completion.
Fifth, most four-year campuses offer steeply discounted summer courses. This provides an incentive for students to take additional courses in order to stay on track to graduate in four years. Educators realize that many students must work full-time in the summer and may not be able to take advantage of these lower tuition offerings, however it does provide a great opportunity for some. A positive recommendation for Haslam to consider is to partner with campuses by offering a $500 supplemental grant to those students just shy of the 30-hour mark at the end of their spring semester to take summer courses. Instead of threatening to take student aid away, enable students by offering a small, but significant, supplemental grant.
Sixth, have a strong message of graduating on time. Tennessee’s private colleges have been promoting this message for decades. “Graduate in four years or less, and you’ll pay less tuition and get into the job market quicker!” Haslam should fund a strong statewide messaging campaign highlighting on-time completion. It could be something like, “30 to finish: Tennessee has a job waiting for you!” With the state’s current campaigns related to Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, it is obvious that Haslam can message this well.
Haslam’s current Complete to Compete proposal has the ability to positively increase the low 30% 30-12 going rate for community college students. But, his proposal has the potential to harm between 8,000 and 16,000 students attending four-year institutions who will have their student aid reduced if the proposal is enacted as written. With this proposal, the Governor and the state seems to ignore the potential harm that may result.
Looking closer, the resulting harm affects some students more than others. Data indicate that the students most at risk in this proposal are first generation college goers and those majoring in science, technology, the health fields, engineering, math, business, and art. One-on-one advising allows campuses to know better than the state which students need to take 30 hours in 12 months and which students don’t.
Tennessee needs to empower students toward completion by offering them hope not financial hurdles.
(Dr. Claude Pressnell is President of Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, Nashville. He has spent over 30 years in higher education administration. He has served in his present position since 2000.)

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