Tennessee Community Colleges first year enrollment goes up – Four year public colleges goes down

The “Tennessee Promise” funding model offers free tuition for students to attend nearby Community and Technical Colleges. As a result  first year enrollment for 2 year colleges increased while 4-Year Public Colleges freshman classes declined. Would The New York State Excelsior Scholarship model, a last dollar funding program for 4 and 2-year public colleges reduce the unintended enrollment and budgetary consequences for public 4-year colleges.

By Dr. Roger Brown – Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council

Most college faculty members and administrators, as well as political leaders and employers, support more accessible college educations for qualified students from moderate to low-income families. This article is a comparison of the experience in two states – Tennessee and New York – of free tuition programs for students entering two-year colleges.

The many positive consequences for Tennessee and New York of increased college-going among post-secondary students include: the availability of comparison shopping by students and their families for college educations that do not result in high student loan debt; higher rates of employment in good-paying jobs for which a college education is required; the retention of more college-educated citizens to fill jobs in Tennessee rather than leaving the state for better jobs; and fulfilling needs of employers who are seeking college-educated employees to make their businesses more competitive.

Tennessee’s tuition program for community and technical colleges, known as Tennessee Promise, was the first program in the country (signed into law in 2014) aimed at increasing the college-going rate for students who commit to full-time study at one of the state’s public two-year colleges or technical colleges. According to the most recent state report on Tennessee Promise, the “promise” is being fulfilled.

The program report states, “the statewide college-going rate increased by 4.6 percentage points in the first year of Tennessee Promise implementation, from 57.9 to 62.5 percent. This single-year increase is larger than the past 7 years combined (2007 to 2014). As such, enrollment of first-time freshmen grew between Fall 2014 and Fall 2015. Overall, there was a 10.1 percent increase in postsecondary enrollment across the state, with community colleges experiencing a 24.7 percent increase and TCATs (technical colleges) experiencing a 20 percent increase in first-time student enrollment.” (Tennessee Promise Annual Report 2017, Tennessee Commission on Higher Education, Executive Summary, p. 1.) The program also has been successful in promoting Governor Bill Haslam’s “drive to 55,” which has the goal of increasing the proportion of Tennesseans who complete a college certificate or degree to 55 percent over several years.

However, in Tennessee the funding of “last dollar” financial aid (meaning that the scholarship is awarded to supplement all other forms of financial aid like Pell Grants and individual scholarships) is available only to qualified high school graduates attending two-year colleges not four-year colleges and universities. The result is competition for students between public two-year colleges and public four-year colleges.

In Tennessee, budget officers at four-year public colleges and universities explain that flat or declining enrollments for students in their first two years has a budgetary consequence that is significant. The potential budgetary impacts of declining enrollments at four-year colleges and universities can include among other things fewer faculty members, reduced funding for less popular programs, and postponement of needed maintenance and repairs of campus facilities. (Interviews by author of budget officers at the University of Tennessee, April 28-May 5, 2017.)

The following chart illustrates that the implementation of the Tennessee Promise program was accompanied by a sizable dip in the number of first-time student enrollees in Tennessee’s public four-year colleges and universities.

 Percent Change in First-Time Enrollment at Universities, Fall 2014 to Fall 2015 (Source 2017 Tennessee Promise Annual Report Figure 8 – Page 15)

Tennessee 4 year enrollment decline

An individual campus’s case in point is from one of the universities in the University of Tennessee system that reported that the Tennessee Promise program was accompanied by declining enrollments of first-time students. After two years’ experience with the Tennessee Promise program, our sample campus reported the following enrollment numbers:

 First-time enrollment at one campus of the University of Tennessee system.

Fall 2014:   2160

Fall 2015:   1865 (-13.6% vs. 2014 FTF)

Fall 2016:   2077 (-3.8% vs. 2014 FTF)

As can be seen, first-time enrollment at this four-year campus still has not yet equaled 2014 levels.

New York by comparison is the first state to expand the last dollar tuition program to include four-year public colleges and universities as well as two-year colleges. New York state’s Excelsior Scholarship is a notable exception to the competition between public two-year colleges and four-year colleges and universities for students, as happened in Tennessee’s freshmen enrollments. The Excelsior Scholarship is a last dollar funding program at both four-year and two-year public colleges, Therefore, the competition for students between public four-year colleges and two-year colleges should be alleviated in New York’s system of financial aid to both categories of public colleges. Since 2017 is the first year of the Excelsior Scholarship, increased college-going data are not yet available to compare directly to the Tennessee experience. However, the expected increase in the number of post-secondary New York college graduates will presumably have the same positive consequences as noted above for Tennessee.

Following New York’s example is a first step toward reducing the unintended enrollment and budgetary consequences for public four-year colleges. The implication of New York’s and Tennessee’s experiences suggest that states should consider offering the last dollar financial aid for qualified high school graduates who wish to attend either two-year colleges or four-year institutions.



Dr. Roger G. Brown is Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).  During his 7-year tenure enrollment increased over 20%, and Dr. Brown was integral in fundraising that generated $81.2 million for scholarships, professorships, and academic programs. He was the key ambassador for government and community relations.His academic career in political science included faculty positions at Iowa State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His administrative career included the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke as Provost, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as Chancellor.

Dr. Brown has authored numerous publications in his field. For six years, he was a member of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  Currently, Dr. Brown is involved in leadership roles at several community nonprofit organizations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.





The Challenge to American Institutional Accreditation

Guest Column by Dr. Chester D. Haskell. Academic institutions are at the core of higher education in the United States, whether they be famous research universities, unknown small specialized schools, massive for-profit online institutions, comprehensive public universities, private non-profit liberal arts colleges or emerging innovative providers. Regardless of structure or mission, institutions bring together the people, resources, infrastructure and services necessary for effective higher education. This diverse institutional base provides a range of choices for students as they seek the most appropriate learning environment for their interests and capabilities. At its best, such diversity also promotes experimentation, innovation and quality through competition.

The quest institutional quality has long been a hallmark of U.S. higher education. Beginning more than a century ago, institutions began to collaborate in processes designed to assure institutional quality, processes now known as “accreditation.”

Many other nations have focused on the accreditation of specific programs or degrees (“programmatic accreditation”) as the principal means of assuring academic quality. However, such efforts, while important, neglect the fact that academic programs do not occur in a vacuum: in most cases they have an institutional context. Programmatic accreditation does play a crucial role in American higher education as setting standards for quality in specialized, professional fields, but institutions and institutional accreditation are central.

American institutional accreditation has long been voluntary, non-profit and non-governmental. The six regional institutional accreditors, along with the several national accreditors of specialized institutions, have emphasized decentralization, institutional autonomy and the variety of institutional missions, while ascribing to the values of academic freedom, self-examination, peer review and recognizing that each institution bears the fundamental responsibility for its own academic quality.

This approach is in line with the American tradition of decentralized education. Unlike other nations, the U.S. has not had a strong centralized ministry of education. Elementary and secondary education is mostly a function of state and local governments. The American public universities are almost exclusively supported of state governments. Institutions of higher education, some of which predate the United States itself, have always prized their independence

The fact of institutional heterogeneity presents a challenge to accrediting bodies. Even small institutions are complex and most institutions have multiple programs and degrees in line with their diverse missions. Further, there is no consensus on even how to define quality in institutional terms. Thus, accrediting bodies take a threshold approach, establishing minimum standards and developing processes of assessment that can lead to continual improvement. One result is the sometimes seemingly absurd situation of a minimal quality school being able to legitimately say it has exactly the same accreditation as a nearby world-renowned research university. However, this is the only way to accommodate institution variety. U.S. institutional accreditation is about setting a floor for quality, not about signifying institutional excellence.

The role of the Federal government in the U.S. has been largely concentrated on funding higher education, the most important examples being student financial aid through Title IV of the Higher Education Act and the financing of scientific research. Significantly, the former has been indirect, with most aid going to individual students, while the latter has been distributed on the basis of rigorous competition and peer review.

With the Higher Education Act of 1965, U.S. institutional accreditors took on an additional function. Rather than having the Federal government decide on allocation of financial resources, they became gatekeepers in the government’s stead. Federal financial aid, while going to students, can only be utilized at accredited institutions. Similarly, Federal research funds can only be accessed by institutions with accreditation. Similar prerequisites exist for funding from U.S. states.

The enormous sums involved – more than $150 billion in student aid in 2015, plus another $45 billion in research funding – put accrediting bodies in a difficult position. The threshold approach now has major consequences. Because most institutions are so dependent on access to Federal funding, the loss of accreditation is, in most cases, an institutional death sentence.

Yet, the typical process of self-study and review by volunteer peers is not well suited to a gatekeeper, regulatory function. Further, knowing the impact of a negative decision on an institution often means reviewers usually look for ways to help an institution, not shutter it. This has led to several situations where accreditors failed to oversee properly institutions that were in financial danger, had ineffective programs or, in some cases, were engaged in fraud and abuse.

These failures, especially with regard to for-profit institutions, have been but one source of criticism of the U.S. institutional accreditation system. In addition, student debt loads have exploded, often with students completing their education only to find they lack the skills and credentials for employment sufficient to service and repay their debt. It also is argued that accreditation has little impact on such key metrics as graduation or retention rates. Accreditation processes are seen as too complex, too time consuming, too bureaucratic and too costly, especially for smaller institutions, while the top institutions see little value added by the accreditation process.

These criticisms have become central to a national debate about the purposes of higher education and the most effective ways to assure best use of public funds. Senators as different as Marco Rubio of Florida and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have put forth legislative proposals that would radically change accreditation. Research groups have issued studies calling for new forms of institutional audit based on metrics as the key to Federal funding. Others have argued the accrediting bodies need government funding in order to have the professional staff necessary for effective gatekeeping. Still others have called for the complete decoupling of public financing of higher education from accreditation.

In this context, one of the most knowledgeable and influential observers of accreditation, Judith Eaton, the head of the Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has warned of coming “disruption” in accreditation. New and different forms of oversight are already in place with the U.S. Department of Education overlaying the independent accrediting bodies. A different definition of quality has emerged, one that the government defines along the lines of metrics such as employability and graduation rates. Accountability is changing to include a range of stakeholders outside higher education. In effect, Eaton argues, the traditional “pillars” of accreditation – self-reporting and peer review – have been determined to be insufficient and changes are coming.

The fact is that a major shift is underway in the United States. Instead of a collegial, peer-based process wherein higher education determines quality for itself, accreditation is becoming a process of compliance wherein stakeholders outside higher education, especially government, defines both quality and whether or not it is attained.

The implications are significant. A greater reliance on objective metrics (or proxies) may lead to less nuance and diminished understanding in the assessment of diverse institutions and programs. Education will be seen more in utilitarian, short-term perspectives (“the goal of education is to get a job”) rather than in life-long, socially constructive ways. Institutions will tend to become more and more alike, as they mold themselves to meet external pressures and incentives. This in turn may lead to less competition, less innovation and, eventually, lower, not higher, quality.

In such circumstances, higher education – both institutions and accreditors — must find ways to balance the legitimate concerns of the public and government with historical norms of institutional autonomy and self-responsibility. Higher education must find ways to convince others of its values and that it is deserving of trust. The alternative will be a diminishing of what has distinguished America’s leadership in higher education.

Chet(1)Dr. Chet Haskell is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council. He is an independent consultant  working with several universities in the United States, Mexico, Holland, Spain and Brazil. He also has been deeply engaged in quality assurance and accreditation  serving as a consultant to the Council of Higher Education Accreditation and the Council on International Quality Group. Dr. Haskell has served as a peer reviewer for the WASC Senior Colleges and University Commission (WSCUC) assessing schools in California, The United Arab Emirates and Mexico. Further he has served on as a member of the international advisory committees for Spain and Madrid.