Critiquing the "Complete College Tennessee Act"

In Depth Policy Opinion Editorial

By Dr. Tim Gaudin

 

Tim Gaudin, Chair of the UTC UCW's Legislative Committee
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At the beginning of its 2010 legislative session, the Tennessee Legislature passed the “Complete College Tennessee Act,” in an effort to increase the number of Tennesseans that hold post-secondary degrees.  Although the act institutes a number of changes in the Tennessee Higher Education System, I will direct my comments specifically to one aspect of the new law, the portion which, for the first time, ties the funding formulas for the state’s public colleges and universities to graduation rates.  The text of the act states that both the base funding formula and performance funding will be tied to retention and graduation rates, with 25% of the latter tied to “Degree Productivity.”

I would like to begin my commentary by highlighting several of the underlying assumptions of this act. 

The text begins by acknowledging that

“the demand for postsecondary is at an all-time high and public resources for the enterprise (adjusted for inflation on a per student basis) are at an all-time low.”  It goes on to assert that “[a]n operating assumption of the 2010-2015 planning cycle is that there will be few to no new state dollars with which to pursue quality enhancements,” and further, that increases in degree productivity must be generated “with available resources… with no decrease in instructional quality.”  

In other words, the legislature is removing itself from any active responsibility for increasing degree productivity by providing necessary additional funding for academic enhancements.  It is simply dumping the responsibility on the public colleges and universities to increase performance without the ability to pay for any enhancements in staffing or facilities. 

This might be viewed as insulting within the higher education community in and of itself, but when it is considered in the context of the historically low levels of funding provided by the state to begin with (the state has consistently ranked 47th or lower among the 50 states in per capita funding for higher education for at least the past decade), coupled with the dramatic decreases in funding that have been implemented with the recession of the past two years, it seems not just insulting but monumentally unrealistic and unfair.  Although we will no doubt hear from our legislators about the need to do “more with less,” colleges and universities are no more staffed with magicians than any other enterprise, and if given fewer resources, we must cut back on the services we are to provide.  Doing “more with less” is as much a myth in higher education as in the rest of life, and is a dangerous basis for policy.

There is a second set of assumptions that underlie this act, however, that I believe are worthy of discussion. 

At the heart of this act is an insidious, if unstated, assumption, that the low number of Tennessee citizens with post-secondary degrees (31% hold an associates degree or higher, well-below the national average of 38% and 44th among the 50 states) is somehow the fault of the colleges and universities themselves.  If only we were properly motivated, I suppose the argument would run, the number of degrees would increase dramatically.  I believe this to be a faulty assumption on many levels. 

From a purely subjective standpoint, I, like most of my faculty colleagues, have for many years watched students struggle in my classes because they lack the basic reading, writing and math skills to complete college level work.  These students are failed by the public education system long before they reach college, and there is little that I can do as I faculty member to help them – the deficits are often too great to overcome at the college level.  Tennessee’s poor funding of higher education mirrors the historical funding levels of K-12 education, and reflects the state’s lack of commitment to providing its citizens a quality education at all levels. 

Moreover, students often encounter personal or financial difficulties that prevent them from finishing college.  It is my subjective impression that these sorts of issues, i.e., lack of academic preparation or personal/financial difficulties, present a far greater obstacle to degree completion than anything the colleges and universities and their employees do or do not do.  This subjective impression is confirmed at least in part by empirical data.  Data reported by the legislature itself show a strong correlation between graduation rates and the average ACT scores of incoming freshman, and a strong inverse correlation between the number of part-time students (those most likely to have outside commitments that might interfere with their studies) and graduation rates. 

Lastly, I would point out that colleges and universities have not been idle when it comes to efforts to increase retention and graduation of students.  Most of Tennessee’s public colleges and universities have for many years deployed a wide variety of programs to assist students in achieving their educational goals, from tutoring programs and “university studies / freshman seminar” courses that assist incoming students to adjust to the academic environment, to remedial courses in math and English that attempt to remedy deficiencies in students’ academic preparation for college-level work.  Though more can always be done, without new funding to expand these programs, it is hard to see how our institutions of higher learning will make dramatic improvements in student retention.

Ultimately, it is students who earn degrees, and therefore I believe that the source of Tennessee’s problems with graduation and retention rates lie largely in the student’s own individual histories – the personal and financial obstacles that they face, and their lack of adequate academic preparation for college level work.  Although we may have only limited influence on the former, we can address the preparation of students en masse if we can generate a cultural shift in our state.

We must create an “education culture,” where educational achievement is given the highest priority at every level of society, from teachers and students to parents and, yes, political leaders.  If political leaders wish to contribute to the creation of such a culture, they must, as the saying goes, “put their money where their mouth is,” and increase educational investment across the board in our state.

 

Timothy J. Gaudin
Chair, UCW Legislative Committee at UTC
UC Foundation Professor
Department of Biological & Environmental Sciences
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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