Thursday, January 08, 2015

First Thoughts on Taking Tennessee National

President Obama is apparently trying to take the Tennessee Promise, a program that provides two years of community college free to recent high school graduates, national.

I’ve written before about the Tennessee Promise.  I consider it a much smarter and more promising approach to free community college than, say, the “Pay It Forward” plan floated last year in Oregon.  Tennessee’s is an endowed program that covers the “last dollar” of a student’s tuition and fees that haven’t already been covered by Pell grants or other aid.  The students have to maintain a 2.0 GPA, and the clock is ticking; they only have two years, and they have to move at a brisk clip.  

Tennessee’s plan is smart in several ways.  By designing around the “last dollar,” it doesn’t replace federal money with state money, which keeps costs down for the state.  The performance requirement, while admittedly regressive to some degree, builds in political palatability.  And it has identified a revenue stream -- the lottery -- that will cover most of its costs, at least for a while.  

Because it covers tuition and fees, rather than replacing them, it maintains a connection between enrollments and revenues.  That’s crucial on a campus level.  When the two are disconnected, you wind up with waiting lists.  California taught us that.

The plan has its flaws, of course.  The time limit means that students who have to attend part-time -- generally, the lower income students -- don’t get as much help.  Remediation doesn’t always fit cleanly in a two-year plan.  And folks over, say, nineteen are out of luck. (Edited to add: GED holders are, in fact, eligible.)

Taking the plan federal is a bit more complicated, though.

Apparently, the federal plan would cover 75 percent of the “average cost” of a community college, with states required to put up the rest.  Already, I’m nervous.  Although the article refers to “cost,” I’m guessing the program actually refers to “price,” which is not the same thing.  Most public colleges set prices well below cost, by design.  A national average price would wreak havoc on higher-price regions, such as my own.  

If states or colleges lose the autonomy to set their own tuition and fee levels, I see even greater disinvestment on the horizon.  If they don’t, I foresee the federal share of funding dropping fast, leaving states with less incentive to continue to fill the gaps.  (The feds can’t actually order the states to pay, so they’d have to use matching funds as incentives.)  Although I would welcome a major, sustained infusion of operating money, I have a hard time imagining it.

Which brings me to the politics.  As the IHE story notes, this plan would require congressional approval, and Congress is controlled by Republicans.  I consider it unlikely to pass in the next two years, if only because neither party would want the other to get credit.  After that, we’ll have a new president with new priorities.

Part of what makes the Tennessee Promise smart is that it’s endowed.  It has its own dedicated funding stream, which makes it likely to survive changes in the political winds.  Unless I missed it, the federal plan doesn’t have that.  It’s just a budget line, cuttable like any other.  I’d like to believe that higher education would be held sacrosanct the next time the winds shift, but then, I’d like to believe a lot of things.  Based on the last several decades, it seems unlikely.

These are just first thoughts; I hope to learn more over the next several days.  Kudos to President Obama for recognizing a forward-looking initiative when he sees one, but I’m not sure that he has really addressed either the mechanism or the politics of taking it to national scale.