Haslam announces major overhaul for Tennessee colleges

Gov. Bill Haslam.
Gov. Bill Haslam.

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled sweeping changes to the state’s public higher education system on Tuesday, including a proposal that could shift oversight at Tennessee Tech University – and five other colleges currently governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents – to a new local governing board.

Haslam announced the changes during a press conference to discuss the next step in the Drive to 55 initiative: ensuring that colleges and universities are organized, supported and empowered in efforts to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential to 55 percent by 2025.

The plan includes key strategies to provide more focused support for community and technical colleges, increase autonomy and local control for Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) universities and strengthen the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC).

“Since the launch of the Drive to 55, we have made tremendous progress, becoming No. 1 in the nation for federal student aid completion and increasing the size of our freshman class by 10 percent in one year,” Haslam said in a release. “Tennessee is at the forefront of innovation in public higher education, and the conversation has brought us to this point – making sure Tennessee colleges and universities are organized, supported and empowered to meet the demands of Drive to 55.”

For the 2015-2016 school year – the first year of Tennessee Promise and Reconnect – there was a 24.7 percent increase in first-time freshmen enrollment at community colleges and a 20 percent increase in first-time freshmen at Tennessee colleges of applied technology (TCATs).

Haslam said the state is developing legislation to bring during the coming session in January called the “Focus On College and University Success (FOCUS) Act.”

Tennessee Tech University.
Tennessee Tech University.

One of the main features is the creation of local boards for Tennessee Tech as well as Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis. Those boards could appoint the campus president, manage the university budget and set tuition, and oversee other operational tasks.

That would allow the TBR a more concentrated focus on the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 TCATs, as other elements of the plan free up TBR to give more attention to enrollment and student success challenges that have emerged while trying to increase the number of Tennesseans pursuing credentials in higher education.

Currently TBR oversees 46 colleges and universities ranging from technical colleges to medical and law schools. TBR would continue to provide key administrative support to the six state universities.

THEC would assume an enhanced coordinating role in higher education, ensuring progress on a cohesive, statewide master plan for higher education; maintaining academic program quality; formulate a strategic finance plan for state higher education that incorporates tuition, capital and funding formula components and setting binding tuition and capital recommendations.

“Tennessee’s future in economic development will depend on us having a workforce that is ready for high skill, high wage jobs, and as part of that effort we have to make sure our colleges and universities are strategically aligned in supporting student success,” Haslam said. “The FOCUS Act will put us on that path.”

By 2025, 55 percent of the jobs available in Tennessee will require a postsecondary credential, and currently only 33 percent of Tennesseans qualify. The governor launched his Drive to 55 two years ago to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree or certificate.

The UCBJ has reached out to Tennessee Tech officials for comment and will continue to update the story.

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