Haslam’s Tuition Plan Shows Little Promise

Shiny Community College Push More Spin Than Substance

Trust MeBill Haslam is the most shameful kind of politician.

Don’t get me wrong. Haslam is surely a nice man. He’s probably a good father and husband. He presents well.

But his politics are shameful because, rather than fighting for the families he represents, he masterfully peddles false hope.

The most egregious example of Haslam’s hope peddling is, of course, Medicaid expansion.

Medicaid Expansion

Nearly a year ago, Haslam, in a big speech to the General Assembly, promised working families living without health coverage — more than 465,000 parents and children in Tennessee — that his office would submit a plan to get their families access to Medicaid coverage.

A year later, Haslam still peddles false hope talking about how hard he is trying. But he has refused to even produce a plan for public review. Leaders in the legislature filed an open records request to lay bare Haslam’s delay tactics.

Tennessee Promise

Much like his earlier initiatives, Haslam’s latest promise — a program to boost college graduation rates to 55% — is more publicity machine than actual plan.

Let me break it down for you. Haslam’s plan, called Tennessee Promise, would allow every high school graduate to attend community college free of charge for two years.

It sounds great when you hear it. But when you start scratching past the surface, you immediately uncover some inconvenient truths.

Tenn. Community Colleges Underperform Public Four-Year Colleges

Tennessee has the fifth lowest community college graduation rate in the nation. Only 8 percent of students graduate in two years and only 11.3 percent of students graduate within three years.

By comparison, nearly 20 percent of students graduate on time at four-year colleges and 45.5 percent of students graduate within six years — quadruple the rate.

Wow. Right? Public universities are four times more effective at getting students a degree than community colleges. The difference in graduation rates is even more pronounced among blacks and Latinos.

Breakthrough Collaborative, a national organization focused on boosting college graduation rates among underserved communities, issued a white paper in 2009 explaining why they focus on four-year college programs vs. community college.

“It is true that once students have their bachelor’s degrees, it makes little difference, in terms of earnings potential and job prospects, what path they took to get there. However, the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree is significantly reduced if a student starts her post‐secondary education at a community college, and the amount of time it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree (and potentially, the amount of loans a student accrues) is greatly increased. Additionally, research shows that the kinds of students Breakthrough serves—low‐income, minority, first generation—are less likely to transfer from community colleges to four‐year colleges and earn bachelor’s degrees. Therefore, the research supports the fact that students are more likely to complete bachelor’s degrees if they start their post‐secondary educations at four‐year colleges or universities.

If the research says the most effective way to increase college graduation rates is to send student to four-year programs, why does Haslam’s plan focus on the most ineffective way to boost graduation rates?

Mostly Re-Branding

Because it’s not a new plan. It’s just a bit of nifty re-branding.

As The Commercial Appeal’s Wendi Thomas put it, Haslam’s promise is “basically a repackaging of these Wilder-Naifeh technical skills grants and tnAchieves, just expanded.”

Qualifying high school graduates in Tennessee can already get a $3,000 Hope scholarship to cover tuition at state community colleges — that’s about 80 percent of total tuition costs.

Both the Wilder-Naifeh technical skills grants and tnAchieves, which operates in 27 counties, work to close the community college funding gap even more.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

To make community college completely free, a roughly $800 gap per student, Haslam’s plan raids $300 million from the Hope Scholarship reserves, cuts Hope Scholarships by $1,000 for freshman and sophomores in four-year programs, and hikes tuition rates – again.

An official representing private colleges in Tennessee told WPLN Haslam’s plan isn’t fair to students in four-year programs.

“It’s a very laudable goal for the governor to want to provide access to the community colleges in this way, however, it really shouldn’t be done on the back of the freshmen and sophomores at the university level.”

Perhaps even worse is that Haslam’s funding mechanism raids the lottery scholarship reserves, which fund Hope Scholarships.

The Hope Scholarship was established to send more Tennessee students to four-year colleges. The program has been a smash success.

Unfortunately, Haslam’s new program cripples the Hope Scholarship’s ability to grow. With reserves down to $100 million, there will be no appetite to expand scholarships or increase grants, which is greatly needed due to inflation and year-after-year tuition hikes.

So instead of investing in four-year universities, which are four-times as effective at producing students with degrees, Haslam built a $34 million publicity machine that sounds nice but definitely won’t drive to 55.

Now that sounds like a clunker.




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