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News & Press: Policy Update

TICUA Policy Summary of the First Session of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly

Thursday, May 2, 2019  
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TICUA Policy Summary of the First Session of the 111th Tennessee General Assembly

This has been a year of significant leadership changes in Tennessee politics. Franklin native Bill Lee was sworn in as the 50th Governor of Tennessee on January 19, 2019 and the leadership of the 111th General Assembly saw new leadership in the House with familiar leadership in the Senate. Representative Glen Casada was elected as the new House Speaker and Senator Randy McNally was re-elected as Lt. Governor and Speaker of the Senate. The Legislature convened on Tuesday, January 8, 2019, for the first year of the two-year session.

Committee leadership decisions were made during the first week of the Session. Education and Finance are the two most critical committees monitored by TICUA. House Speaker Casada assigned two new leaders to these top posts. Rep. Mark White as chair of the House Education Committee and Rep. Susan Lynn to chair the House Finance Committee. Lt. Governor McNally reappointed Sen. Dolores Gresham as the chair of the Senate Education Committee and Sen. Bo Watson as chair of the Senate Finance Committee.

House Speaker Casada also decided to create four subcommittees to the House Education Committee. They are Higher Education, chaired by Rep. Jim Coley; K-12, chaired by Rep. John Regan; Curriculum, Testing and Innovation, chaired by Rep. Debra Moody; and Education Administration, chaired by Rep. David Byrd.

Governor Lee delivered his first State of the State Address on March 3rd. During the speech, he outlined a wide-range of initiatives from criminal justice reform to education savings accounts. The Governor’s higher education memorandum summarized his higher education commitment in this way, “the Governor’s budget recommends recurring appropriations for higher education totaling $1.66 billion, an increase of $86.7 million—or 5.5 percent—over the 2018-19 recurring appropriation level. Higher education is also recommended to receive $44 million in non-recurring appropriations. The total increase in operating appropriations—including recurring and nonrecurring—is an investment of $130.7M.”

Included in the Governor’s budget were two key improvements of interest to TICUA members. He proposed a $12.3 million increase in the Tennessee Student Assistance Award (TSAA)– the State’s only need-based aid program and a $417,400 restoration of the Contract Education program. Both improvements are on the recurring side of the budget, meaning that the funding will be embedded in all future budgets. Upon adjournment, the Governor’s higher education budget priorities remained intact.

The following bills are a sampling of legislative initiatives which were monitored by TICUA.


TSAA Improvement Approved

The Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation Board and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission jointly proposed a $12.3 million improvement in the Tennessee Student Assistance Award, the state’s only need-based aid program. The additional recurring funds to the TSAA will be a huge step toward fully funding the grant program.

The improvement will go to serve an additional 6,875 students attending both public and private colleges and universities. Despite increased appropriations over recent years, approximately 40,000 eligible applicants are unfunded due to limited program funding. TSAC’s goal is to fully fund these eligible student applicants over a four-year period. The increase of $12.3 million over the current funding level would bring the total number of awarded students to over 61,000.

TICUA has been a long-time supporter of the TSAA grant. About one-third of the funds go to assist students attending member campuses. Governor Bill Lee approved the proposal and made it a part of his administrative priorities. As well, the General Assembly unanimously approved the budget request.



Governor Signs the GIVE Act

Governor Bill Lee’s top higher education priority entitled the “Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education” or GIVE Act (SB0805/HB0949) was approved by both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Lee. This is a major victory for the Governor in his first term.

The bill expands the dual enrollment scholarship aid for students seeking additional vocational training. It is anticipated that the Act will cost around $4 million and will be funded through the lottery proceeds.

Currently, the dual enrollment grant covers $500 for the first two courses and $200 for a third. This aid is provided for all high school students seeking college and high school credit. Under the GIVE Act, the dual enrollment grant will cover the first four dual enrollment courses. The funding expansion will be given only to those students enrolling in programs that directly address annually determined workforce needs. The eligible courses will be identified annually by the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation board of directors.

To remain eligible, students must maintain a 2.75 GPA in the postsecondary courses and may take only one course per semester. However, students in their junior or senior years may take more than one dual enrollment course per semester if they have a 21 ACT score and have at least a 3.0 cumulative weighted GPA in high school.



State Authorization Bill Signed by Lee

SB335/HB688 sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White unanimously passed the House and Senate. The bill was signed into law with Governor Bill Lee’s signature on April 3, 2019. It was among the first bills Lee signed as Governor of Tennessee.

TICUA has been working with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to ensure that Tennessee’s state authorization statutes align with federal requirements while ensuring the independence of our campuses. Prior to this bill; statute and rules provided for TICUA’s main campuses to be authorized yet exempt from regulatory oversight. It was discovered that TICUA member satellite campuses were not sufficiently covered by the exempt status. Consequently, THEC has drafted bill language to address this issue.

The measure signed by Governor Lee resolves the issue and provides that all primary and satellite TICUA campuses be authorized by the state and exempt from regulatory oversight. The measure ensures that Tennessee’s state authorization statutes align with federal requirements related to Title IV eligibility while maintaining the independence of TICUA member campuses.

A list of authorized but exempt institutions in Tennessee can be found here.



WGU Bill Taken Out of Play During First Session

Senator Mike Bell and Rep. Chris Hurt sponsored legislation to enable Western Governors University to gain access to the HOPE Scholarship programs (SB0441/HB0497). In the end, the bill was sent to General Subcommittee by the Senate Education Committee and to Summer Study by the House Higher Education subcommittee. This means the bill will not be heard in committee during this first session of the 111th General Assembly. The pressure against the bill was too strong for the sponsors to consider moving forward this year.

WGU-Tennessee offers an online competency-based program and has their marketing office domiciled in Franklin Tennessee. Its academic and financial operations, however, are based in Park City, Utah.

Early in the session TICUA has expressed grave concerns about the bill based on three key issues. First, in 2013 former Governor Bill Haslam put together an incentive package for WGU to locate in Tennessee and it did not include access to Hope Scholarship aid. The package did include, however, $5 million for start-up funds, removal from regulatory oversight by THEC, and access to the TSAA – the state’s need-based student aid program.During testimony concerning the incentive package, WGU representatives indicated they had no intention of seeking access to the Hope Scholarship programs.

Second, an exception for WGU could open the door for other out-of-state headquartered institutions to seek access to HOPE Scholarship aid. The General Assembly has provided HOPE Scholarships exceptions in the past, but these were for nonprofit institutions with their main campus domiciled in Tennessee, not for operations based outside of the state. Some of the regionally accredited institutions that offer online and/or ground programs in Tennessee and who may seek access to Hope Scholarships in the future include University of Phoenix, Troy State University, Strayer University, University of Alabama, and others.

Finally, Hope Scholarship aid for students attending four-year colleges and universities has not been adjusted upward to account for inflation. Most recently, the scholarships for freshmen and sophomores were reduced by $500 per year to accommodate the funding needs of the Tennessee Promise program. It has been TICUA’s priority to restore the funding levels of the first two years of the scholarship before any new programs are introduced, much less allowing an out-of-state institution gain access to the scholarship aid.

The University of Memphis, Tennessee Technological University, and East Tennessee State University joined TICUA with their opposition to the bill. TICUA will continue to monitor the bill during the off-session and during the Second Session of the 111th General Assembly which will convene in January 2020.




STEP-UP Bill Sent to Summer Study

After brief deliberation, the House Higher Education Subcommittee sent Rep. Rick Staples’ version of STEP UP housing bill (SB0516/HB0586) to Summer Study. This move effectively kills the bill for this session and creates a venue for further discussion over the summer months. The bill would have allowed students receiving the STEP-UP scholarship to apply for student housing even if they were enrolled in a non-housing eligible program. Senator Becky Massey, the bill’s author and sponsor in the Senate, was able to move the bill through the Education Committee with a vote of 5 ayes, 2 nays, and 1 present not voting. The full Senate passed the measure but, as noted, it failed to move out of the House Higher Education subcommittee.

The STEP-UP scholarship was created by the Legislature in 2013 to provide financial aid to students with intellectual disabilities who are attending life-skills courses on college campuses.

An amendment which was attached to the bill in the Senate Education Committee fundamentally changed the way institutions offer campus housing. Currently, campus housing eligibility is determined largely by the program for which the student is enrolled. For example, housing is not typically offered to students in non-degree seeking programs, are enrolled less than three-quarter time, is solely enrolled in online programs, and so forth. Under this bill, campuses could not deny housing by classifying the STEP-UP program as a “day” or “commuter” program. Rather, they would be required to process all housing requests made by their participants.

Many of the TICUA campuses offering STEP-UP qualifying programs provide a housing option. There are some campuses, however, that choose to offer the courses in a commuter format which does not include a housing option.

TICUA testified that passage of the bill, as amended, could have several unintended consequences. First, it may place a chilling-effect on expansion of current programs and on the creation of new programs. Second, it may cause campuses to make the entrance requirements more stringent thus not serving many students with disabilities who would benefit from the program’s curriculum. This would occur because campuses would need to ensure participants can navigate the residential experience before they were admitted. Third, moving housing eligibility determinations from programmatic to student-centered criteria, may open campuses to litigation. The courts have demonstrated that programmatic determinations are much less subjective and more fair than student-centered ones.

TICUA has committed to working with the sponsors to seek ways to further enhance services to this important student population.



Priority Funding for Dual Enrollment

Sen. Joey Hensley and Rep. Scott Cepicky have sponsored a bill (SB0319/HB0111) that will move dual enrollment funding up the priority list. The current funding priority with lottery funds places the Hope Scholarships, Tennessee Promise, Reconnect, and the Tennessee Promise endowment all ahead of dual enrollment. Now that the bill has passed, dual enrollment funding will move up the priority list ahead of Promise but behind the Hope Scholarships.



Dual Enrollment Increased for High Performing Students

Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Iris Rudder sponsored (SB0764/HB1425) which increases the number of dual enrollment courses taken during the Junior and Senior years of students have either a 3.0 GPA or a 21 ACT score. Under current law, students meeting these qualifications may take one additional dual enrollment course for a total of two for each semester in their Junior and Senior years. With the passage of this bill, students may take a total of two additional dual enrollment courses per semester but no more than 10. The bill passed both the House and Senate during the final days of session. Its implementation date is July 1, 2020, consequently it will not be effective for the 2019-2020 academic year.



Homeless Student Assistance Bill Passes

SB763/HB1000 sponsored by Senator Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Bill Beck requires higher education institutions to designate a staff member as a homeless-student liaison. Students meeting the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. § 11434a(2)) definition are considered independent for the purposes of Title IV student aid.

The campus’ designee would provide student aid and housing guidance to students meeting this qualification. The bill requires that homeless-students be given priority for available campus housing during enrollment periods and accommodations between enrollment periods if the campuses provides such services.

The bill passed both the House and Senate Chambers and is expected to be signed by Governor Bill Lee in the coming weeks.



Suicide Prevention Plans

Sen. Steve Dickerson and Rep. Mark Cochran have amended a caption bill (SB1175/HB1354) to require campuses to develop a suicide prevention plan for faculty, staff, and students. According to the bill, the Advisory Council of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network has established the Tennessee Higher Education Suicide Prevention Task Force to unite colleges and universities throughout Tennessee toward the goal of suicide prevention. Appointed members include delegates from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as well as public and TICUA member colleges and universities throughout the State.

The plans will need to rely on the work completed by the Task Force and prevention specialists. Once enacted, the plans will need to be shared with the campus community each semester.