Special Session on Education passes legislation to boost college graduation rates
The General Assembly passed major legislation this week designed to grow the number of college graduates in Tennessee as the work of the Special Session on Education comes to a close. The legislature will come back on Monday before adjourning the Special Session to make sure that there are no unanticipated problems with the legalities of the reform measures.
The first week of the two-week session focused on improving K-12 education and putting Tennessee in position to be a leader in the Race to the Top competition, which could mean up to $500 million in federal funds. The second week saw the legislature turn its attention to the goal of how to get more Tennesseans to pursue a post-secondary education that fits their academic and workplace needs. It also included a focus on measures to help ensure students are successful in completing their college degrees or post-secondary academic programs.
The issue — Tennessee ranks 40th in the nation in completion of bachelor’s degrees and 45th in associate degrees. The average graduation rates in Tennessee range from 44 percent at four-year institutions to 12 percent at community colleges. To achieve the national average of 38 percent of adults having an associate’s degree or higher by 2025, Tennessee will have to produce 20,000 more graduates annually. If successful in meeting this goal, Tennesseans could earn an estimated $6 billion in additional wages and salaries each year as the state enhances the ability to lure new and better paying jobs to the state.
The higher education bill, called the "Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010" revises the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s master planning responsibility to increase college completion, address economic development needs and differentiate institutional missions to increase collaboration and efficiency between Tennessee’s post-secondary schools. State leaders have worked over the past several months to come up with legislation to achieve this goal with help from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and the Complete College America organization.
Performance-based funding – The legislation puts the framework in place to retool the funding formula for higher education to make it substantially based on outcomes. Currently the formula is based primarily on beginning of term enrollment. The bill focuses on outcomes by calling for a funding formula that looks at end of term enrollment or student retention as well as timely progress toward degree attainment and degree completion. Community colleges will be engaged in the process of devising a formula that is fair, given the unique factors and student populations attending these schools.
Transferrable credits and establishment of a unified community college system – The bill calls for a more cohesive system to be in place by Fall 2012 to unlock the potential of affordable and effective gateways to higher education through Tennessee’s community college system. The legislation directs the Board of Regents to develop coordinated programs and services, including a 41-hour common course catalog to make credits earned at community colleges easily transferrable to the four-year college institutions. This means that an associate of science or arts degree from a Tennessee community college will enable a student to transfer to a Tennessee public university as a junior. Also, the 19 hours of pre-major courses will be transferrable as a block to meet the requirements of any Tennessee university offering that major. This system will provide a clearly designated path for students to further their education after completion of an associate degree in the state’s community colleges.
Dual enrollment / Remedial instruction – The bill calls for dual admission and dual enrollment to community colleges and four year universities to be widely available for students intending to transfer. The legislation, however, prohibits remedial or developmental instruction to be offered in a four-year Tennessee university, except when they coordinate with a community college to offer these courses to dually enrolled students.
Research Institutions – The General Assembly has approved $6.2 million to establish a new world-class graduate energy sciences and engineering program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in partnership with Oak Ridge National Lab. The premise is to make the university a top-25 public research institution by placing dramatically heightened levels of instruction in the nation’s premier national lab. The move is expected to create 200 new faculty appointments among the existing researchers at Oak Ridge National Lab. The partnership would be similar to one currently in place with the University of California at Berkeley and the Berkeley National Lab. The bill, as amended, also allows any other four-year Tennessee university to establish an academic unit in collaboration with the Oak Ridge Lab. It calls for keeping those entrepreneurial opportunities in Tennessee.
Similarly, the Memphis Research Consortium is recognized for inclusion under an amendment approved by lawmakers. The Consortium includes 10 Memphis institutions, hospitals and businesses to collaborate on research, medicine and health care, computational and computer science, and engineering and learning technologies to promote long-term economic development and jobs in that area of the state.
Tennessee Technology Centers — On Tennessee’s Technology Centers, which have enjoyed a very high program completion rate, the bill calls for development of agreements between the technical centers and the community colleges to provide seamless transfer opportunities for students and reciprocal use of facilities and other resources.
Accountability – The bill has multiple accountability measures to better ensure implementation of the legislation. Several provisions in the bill require date-specific reporting to legislative committees regarding the progress and plans for completion of the tasks laid out in the comprehensive measure.
Issues in Brief
Parental Choice Scholarships – The Senate Education Committee voted to create a pilot program in one persistently under-performing Memphis city high school to provide “Parental Choice Scholarships” for low income students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. However, action on the bill was deferred due to the time restraints for hearing the matter before the end of the Special Session. Expect the legislation to come back before the General Assembly during the regular 2010 legislative session.
Race to the Top application submitted — Tennessee has submitted the state’s application to compete with other states to receive up to $501.8 million in funds under the federal Race to the Top program. The application was submitted on the same day the president called for adding $1.3 billion to the budget for the program. The program currently has $4.3 billion allocated to it to reward states which are implementing significant reforms in four education areas: enhancing standards and assessments; improving the collection and use of data; increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution; and, turning around struggling schools. The grants are expected to be announced in April to be followed by a second round of competition later in the year.