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News & Press: Op-ed

Achieving TN’s Economic Vision Requires “All of the Above” Approach

Friday, April 26, 2019  
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Tennessee is building a reputation for being the state where anyone, regardless of their background or income level, can earn a college degree. Under Gov. Bill Lee, we have an opportunity to make this a reality for more Tennesseans. 

Lee’s initiatives to increase technical and vocational training are a big part of the conversation and, as a result, these programs have received the bulwark of attention. 

But higher education is not a zero-sum game. 

Great education policies are about more than creating a college-going culture; it’s about our state’s future. 

Tennessee needs well-trained teachers, entrepreneurs and nurses — just like we need technicians and welders. We need students to graduate with the essential skills required by all jobs — critical thinking, effective communication, problem solving and the ability to collaborate -- and ready to lead our economy into the next 50 years of innovation, job creation and production.

Our goal should be to equip and inspire students to reach the highest level of education they can. Let’s give them a firm foundation, not a ceiling. 

By ensuring we have robust and quality higher-education options, Tennessee can truly deliver on the promise to help every student achieve their goals.

That’s why it is so important that the governor also proposed a $12 million increase in financial aid to help an additional 7,000 low-income, eligible Tennesseans attend college. This is one of the largest increases in the Tennessee Student Assistance Award, the state’s only need-based aid program.

The TSAA has been underfunded for decades, and thousands of qualified students have gone without aid. The governor’s investment will mean more low-income students can attend the college that best serves their academic and social needs.

Tennessee’s private colleges and universities are committed partners in the state’s higher-education system. We stand ready to work together to make our state’s strong economic vision a reality. 

While many people may assume a private higher education is financially out of reach, the state’s independent institutions comprise 11 of the top 15 campuses in the state enrolling the highest percentage of Pell Grant-eligible, low-income students. 

We’ve seen year after year, while state and federal aid has remained stagnant, private non-profit institutions have significantly increased the amount of student aid provided to students to enable thousands of low-income, first-generation college students to attend an academic program that best suits them. Last year, tuition and fees at our four-year institutions were 26% less than the national average for private higher education. Consequently, Tennessee is considered a low-tuition, low-student-loan state.

The results bear out that student choice is important to student success. 

For a decade, private institutions have had an average four-year graduation rate measurably higher than the state’s public four-year institutions. Although private campuses enrolled only 26% of the students in Tennessee last year, they awarded 33% of all degrees given. In the last five years, these campuses awarded 66,700 degrees in the high-demand fields of health care, business, education and STEM.

College is not a one-size-fits-all solution. So why would we expect our policies to be? 

We are excited to partner with Lee and his administration to ensure every student in this state has the opportunity to go to a college or university that fits their goals. Our state will be stronger, and better for it.

Claude Pressnell is president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association. This editorial ran in the Tennessean on April 21, 2019.