Tennessee community colleges are “still a good buy” despite a “somewhat concerning” trend of rising tuition, Tennessee Board of Regents vice-chancellor David Gregory told state and regional leaders earlier this month at the annual Motlow College legislative breakfast.
“Tennessee for a long period of time had that brag point of low tuition,” said Gregory. “We’re not a low tuition state anymore, but we’re not a high tuition state either. We’re sort of somewhere in the middle,”
One full year — two full-time semesters — at a Tennessee community college, like Motlow, now costs $3,600.
Though lottery-funded scholarships help some students pay those t
uition costs, Gregory says, “Every time you raise tuition it prices some people out.”
Pricing, however, is not behind the softening enrollment in state universities and community colleges this year, according to Gregory.
“Generally, our enrollments will flatten as economic times get better,” he said, adding that this year’s dip in enrollment comes after “about three years of incredible growth. Think of it as a leveling out.”
Despite the increasing cost of higher education and softening enrollment, Gregory says that more students across the state are choosing community colleges than ever before. Also, TCAT (Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology) programs — like those in Shelbyville and McMinnville — continue to grow statewide.
“The technology centers are not the best kept secret anymore. People are finding out their success rates,” Gregory said.”
Also working in the schools’ favor are programs like dual enrollment, which allows students to earn college credits while still in high school.
Entering the college environment with credits under their belt not only lowers the work load of freshmen college students, but it also eases the transition from high school to college while giving students the confidence that they are capable of college-level work. According to Gregory, that confidence may be the greatest value of dual enrollment.
The transition out of community colleges has been streamlined as well.
“A lot of work has been done so that students can move very quickly and seamlessly out of community colleges into universities if that’s their track or into the workforce with needed certifications,” said Gregory.
Still, fewer than 24 percent of Tennesseeans over the age of 25 have baccalaureate degrees.
Raising those education attainment levels, Gregory says, is not only a matter of getting young people to go to college, but also reaching people who have met the “glass ceiling” in their careers.
“We’re still looking to retrieve people who decided that college was not for them,” said Gregory.
Retrieving those students, though, no longer guarantees that community colleges will receive funding for them.
With passage of the Complete College Act in 2010, the formula for funding for state colleges and universities changed from enrollment-based to outcome-based.
Basing funding on the back-end production numbers — including the accumulation of credit hours and the awarding of degrees and certificates — rather than on enrollment means that the old paradigm of weeding out the students who are at risk of not completing a degree has been turned on its head.
Tennessee Board of Regents institutions are now more motivated than ever to see that as many students as possible succeed.
“A lot of energy in the system is going toward that endeavor,” said Gregory.
Motlow College President MaryLou Apple said that competition — for both colleges and students — is at a very high level. She also suggested that society in general needs to address and understand the value of education on a daily basis, not just during once-a-year forums.
“Our professors and our chairs are charged with a very big task,” said Dr. Apple. “The first is always quality. The second is that we have to be competitive. That’s where the dollars are. So we can’t turn a deaf ear to that and say ‘well, we’re doing the best we can.’ We’ve got to do more.”
“We get a student on a short-time basis,” said Apple, issuing a challenge. “Many of you are with that potential student eight hours a day. Tell them why it’s valuable to be educated. Crime rates go down, home ownership goes up. It’s all around better if you have an educated society. As a whole, it will make our state a stronger place.”
—By KELLY LAPCZYNSKI, Tullahoma News Staff Writer