Higher Ed Needs More Speed Boats, Fewer Battleships

(The Bloomberg View) -- Since taking office in 2011, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has turned his state into a laboratory for policy innovation. In 2014, Tennessee became the first state to offer free tuition at a community or technical college for every graduating high-school senior. This year it expanded that program to adults without degrees who want to go to college. Since 2012, the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential has increased from 33.3 percent to 40.7 percent. Haslam has set a goal of reaching 55 percent by 2025.

A Republican who won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2014, Haslam is limited from seeking another term. As he approaches the end of his tenure, we spoke about raising expectations, connecting education to work, and what leaders in the rest of the country can learn from Tennessee. Here is an edited transcript.

RR: Why did you decide to make access to higher education your administration’s signature issue?

BH: First, we needed to be able to sell our state for economic development. When you’re competing for business in today's global environment, the conversation always ends up being about the skill level of your workforce. When I took office, 32 percent of our population had a postsecondary degree or a certificate, and I knew we needed to be a lot higher than 32.

Second, regardless of what your politics are, you have to admit we have an income-inequality issue in our country. The question is what you’re going to do about it. I’ve always felt the best answer is to give people equal opportunities on the front end to have the training they need to be ready for life, versus trying on the back end to take care of people whom we didn’t prepare on the front end.

RR: You’ve talked about your desire to change the “culture of expectations” in Tennessee. How much progress have you made?

BH: We have a lot of families in Tennessee who did not think of themselves as the type of people whose family members went to college. The reason we came up with Tennessee Promise is that we had to do something to shock the system, something that would get everyone’s attention. Once we said this is an offer of free college for everyone who graduates from high school, that was a message people could grasp easily. Our hope — and what has become reality — was that the dinner-table conversation would change from, “Where are you going to work when you graduate from high school?” to “You can go to college, so where are you going to go and how do we make sure that happens?”

RR: Are you confident that Tennessee Promise is expanding access? One concern about programs like this is that they subsidize college costs for students who would have attended anyway, rather than helping students who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford college.

BH: Now that we’re four years into it, the results have been better than we’d hoped. A lot more high-school students are going on to post-secondary education, and we’ve seen higher graduation rates from community colleges. And the demographics of the student population that’s benefiting are exactly as we hoped: a large percentage are first-generation college students, and their average income is fairly low. So it’s benefiting exactly that student who wasn’t going to college before.

RR: Why did you feel it was important to expand Tennessee Promise to adult learners as well?

BH: We knew from the very beginning that in order to have 55 percent of our population with a post-secondary degree or certificate, we couldn’t do it with just current high-school graduates. We had to reach into the adult population too.

In today’s economy, there are a lot of people who, while they have a job, would say they’re underemployed. But if you’re a 40-year-old single mother of two who’s already working and trying to make ends meet, it’s pretty hard to think, “OK, I’m also going to pay to go back to college.” Just figuring out the time to do it is hard enough; paying for it is almost impossible. From the very beginning we knew we needed a message that would reach her.

In government it always helps to have someone in your mind when you’re creating policy, to have someone whose life you’re trying to affect. And in my mind it was always this 40-year-old single mother of two who already had a job but was underemployed.

RR: There’s a good deal of debate about whether we place too much emphasis on a four-year degree — at a time when there are millions of good-paying jobs that don’t require a B.A. Where do you come down on that?

BH: We need a whole lot more people in this country who have a post-secondary degree. Period. That being said, those don’t have to be four-year degrees — and in terms of being able to provide skills for the workforce that we need, a lot more of those can be through technical-school and community-college degrees and certificates.

Our four-year institutions are like battleships — it takes a lot of time to turn them. Our community colleges and technical schools are speed boats. But we haven’t allocated capital in appropriate ways to meet the market demand. If you look at how things have been done in most states, in our capital budgets we would allocate money to whatever is next in line. So one of our four-year schools would say, “We’ve been waiting to build a new geology building for 20 years and we’re next in line.” And that project would get the money. Now what we’re trying to say is, what do our customers say they need? 

We have some four-year universities that have full programs with, you know, 20 tenured faculty members, and they’re producing 25 graduates a year. Well, that doesn’t make sense from the taxpayers’ standpoint. But that’s where the battle is in higher ed.

RR: What are the biggest priorities for your successor?

BH: We’ve made great strides in expanding college access. We need to make certain we have the same focus on college success. It doesn’t do us any good to enable people to have a free education if they don’t complete that education. That means we have to make certain we have “wrap-around” services available  for students who don’t have any history of higher education in their family. If you grew up in a family where your parents went to college, you know how the system works. If no one in your family has been, it's a different world. We have to help those students make the cultural and logistical adjustments they need to succeed.

RR: At the national level, are we having the right conversations about how to prepare students for the jobs of the future?

BH: I don’t think so. In today’s economy, it takes fewer workers to do the same thing, but they have to be more skilled. I can take you to any manufacturing plant in Tennessee and you’d come away with two impressions: First, it certainly doesn’t take many workers to do all of the production happening there. And second, there are very few jobs that don’t require some training beyond standing at an assembly line and turning a wrench. Those two realities — a lot fewer jobs, but also a higher skill level required to do those jobs — those are the realities for our country. And we’re doing a disservice if we’re not helping people prepare for the future in that way.  

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