Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Tennessee Governor calls for 2 years of free community college

I found this story off the New York Times, and I'm pretty floored by the concept:
 Public colleges have sharply raised their prices since the 1990s in the face of declining state support, but a plan by Tennessee’s governor to make two years of community college and technical school free for all students represents a striking reversal of that trend.

Tennessee would be the only state in the country to charge no tuition or fees to incoming students under the proposal by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, which policy analysts called a big step toward a better-educated work force.
 I will admit, I find it rather surprising for a Republican governor to be offering such a bold, policy idea.  Is Governor Haslam serious?  Or is this just a GOP talking point?

 Continuing with the NY Times story:
 "This is the best idea to boost participation in higher education in a generation,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a major association of public and private colleges.
Mr. Haslam made it the centerpiece of his State of the State address on Monday, calling for two years of free schooling for state residents with high school diplomas or equivalency degrees, without regard to academic credentials or financial need. The change requires approval by the state legislature, whose leaders reacted favorably to the idea.
“We just needed to change the culture of expectations in our state,” the governor said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “College is not for everybody, but it has to be for a lot more people than it’s been in the past if we’re going to have a competitive work force.”
Community college is fairly inexpensive; a full year’s tuition and fees in Tennessee are about $3,800, and the national average is $3,300. Federal Pell grants and other scholarships make the net price zero, or a very small sum, for most students.
I will admit that the devil here is in the details.  What are the eligibility requirements for the students?  Residency requirements?  What about older workers who may already have a college degree, but need to go back to school for professional certification?  Will they be included in this free education?   What colleges and technical schools will be participating in this program?  Are private colleges allowed to be participating in this program....Can you say College Voucher?  What will be paid in this "free education?"  Tuition?  Room and Board?  Books and supplies?

Governor Haslam estimates that the cost for this program will be around $34 million a year, which will be paid by diverting surplus revenue from the state lottery.  He also said that the state will work with private foundations to provide mentors to students on "navigating college."  This brings up two more interesting questions.  The first is, if the state lottery "surplus revenues" drop below $34 million to where the program can not pay the free tuition to students, who will make up the shortfall?  The state's general revenue fund?  The taxpayers?  The students?

The second question I would have is this entire idea of "private foundations" to provide these mentors to students?  Who or what are these private foundations, and what type of mentoring information will they be providing the students?  Will the students be required to see these private foundation mentors in order to get this free college aid?  What about older students who are returning to college, and will know all the hoops they must jump through for attending college?  Is this another scam for the governor to divert public taxpayer money to conservative companies providing either these mentoring services, or conservative colleges?

A quick, final thought here.  Tennessee is a small state, where the NY Times reports there are 13 degree-granting community colleges, and 27 Colleges of Applied Technology.  Will this program become a template for bigger states with a greater number of colleges and students....say California?  I don't know.  I do know that something needs to be done to stop the growing inequality between the rich, and everyone else.  I know that something needs to be done to revive the job market, increase worker wages, and improve employee skills and training to gain better jobs.  This is not the perfect, catch-all policy program that will solve the serious problems this country faces.  However, I would never have expected a Republican governor to advocate such a policy.  So I'll keep an open mind.

And wait for the details.

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