In recent years, many states have been considering ways to make college more affordable. Budget cuts at public universities have made tuition increases necessary to cover costs. This has forced many to choose between high debt in order to afford a four year university or forgoing college all together. Some states have been considering “pay-it-forward” programs in which students attend public universities for free, paid for by income deductions of past graduates.
Earlier this month, Tennessee became the latest state to consider free higher education. In his State of the State address, Governor Bill Haslam presented a plan which would allow any high school student in Tennessee to attend a two-year community college for free. The costs would be paid out of the state’s lottery fund, with an initial endowment of $300 million dollars.
Haslam, who is a Republican, is motivated by economics. Tennessee risks being left behind as employers seek more high skilled workers. With only 32 percent of the population with an advanced degree, Tennessee is below the national average of 38 percent. Only seven states rank lower.
Called the Tennessee Promise, the goal is to bring more students into higher education. The program would also provide qualified mentors for incoming students at community colleges, as well as encourage adults to go back to school and reach out to those that have unfinished degrees. His goal is to raise the percentage of adults with advanced degrees to 55 percent.
The question is, are they ready?
Tennessee has a high school graduation rate of 86 percent, yet has ranked consistently in the lower echelons academically in national rankings. In 2010, it won a Race to the Top grant for the U.S. Department of Education and is one of more than 40 states to implement the Common Core Standards. While finances are most often a major impediment to pursuing advanced degrees, studies have shown that more than 60 percent of high school students are not prepared for secondary study. Many spend their first year or two taking remedial courses in English and math.
It will take some time to see what effect these efforts will make on the readiness of students. In the meantime, as part of Haslam’s education plan, his budget includes expanding remedial math course offerings at community colleges. He also proposed expanding an advisory program that would help students determine the courses for them based on grades and school preferences.
What is lacking in his plan is a focus on the early education years.
There is little disagreement that early childhood education, especially for low income children, makes a tremendous difference in their school future. Haslam has made no plans for expanding pre-k education, claiming he needs more research into its effectiveness. He is also proposing making more vouchers available for up to 20,000 students in the worst performing schools. These programs allow parents to transfer to private schools at no cost. This ends up taking funds from public schools, stretching their already limited resources further.
As higher education is becoming harder to access for those without financial means, any effort to make it more affordable is laudable. Our nation is in the midst of trying to turn around the severely neglected ship that is our deteriorating education system. However, it is a disservice to students to not prepare them for the opportunities — free or not. Tennessee, and everyone, needs to remember that any race to the top has to start on a solid foundation.