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By Robert A. Jones
henthe Nashville songwriter Kris Kristofferson
famously penned the words “freedom’s just another word
for nothing left to lose,” he was not likely contemplating
Tennessee’s higher education system. But the lines are more apt
than he might have imagined.
Tennessee, long at the bottomof the higher education
heap, is throwing out the rule books that have governed its state
colleges and universities. With little to lose, the state leadership
is gambling that a sweeping reform, anchored by a new
approach to funding, will pull the state systemout of its long
trough and lift it, at least, to the national average.
Beginning this year, Tennessee is promising to boost
the production of college graduates by 3.5 percent annually,
yielding a cumulative 210,000more bachelor’s and associate’s
degrees by 2025. At the same time, Tennessee officials say they
will reduce college dropouts dramatically, and achieve those
results at a lower per-student cost than today.
The reformhas attracted national attention because of its
scope, which includes every level of public institution from
community colleges to the University of Tennessee, and
because it incorporates many of the strategies currently favored
by education foundations and think tanks. As such, Tennessee
is seen as the laboratory where those strategies will be tested.
“We are doing these things aggressively. It seems a little
strange to say it, but Tennessee has become the leading edge of
change in higher education,” said JohnMorgan, chancellor of
the Tennessee Board of Regents. “Other states are now looking
at us to see what’s going to happen.”
Reform, and promises of reform, constitutes a way of life in
higher education, of course. Many such attempts fail to produce
long-lasting change and, collectively, the makeovers have not
stemmed the decline that has seen the United States fall from
first place to tenth among nations in the percentage of young
people earning a college degree.
Education experts are hoping the Tennessee plan will
turn out differently, and they see a couple of reasons for
optimism. First, according to DewayneMatthews of the
Lumina Foundation for Education, the Tennessee approach is
comprehensive rather than piecemeal, and derives its authority
not fromagency directives but from legislation passed with
overwhelming support frombothDemocrats and Republicans.
That legislation, the Complete College Tennessee Act, was
passed in 2010 and spells out specific goals such as increases in
graduation rates and the retention of students in the first years
of college. It then ties future funding for each institution to the
achievement of those goals.
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America (a
national nonprofit organization that advised the state at various
times in the process), sees a second hopeful sign. “The most
May 2011
“Outcome Funding”
Tennessee experiments with a performance-based approach to college appropriations
elegant reformplan
will do no good if it’s
not supported by high
officials in the state,”
he said. “In Tennessee
the leadership has
consistently provided
support, and they have
built a consensus that
continues to the present.”
Jones noted, for
example, that the
Tennessee legislation
was sponsored by
former Governor Philip
Bredeson, a Democrat,
and now has been
endorsed by the new
Republican governor, Bill
Ironically, Tennessee is also seen as fertile ground for an
education experiment because of its lamentable past. Today, 31
percent of Tennessee adults ages 25–34 have a college degree,
a figure that ranks the state just belowMississippi. An analysis
by Complete College America shows that only 12 percent of
Tennessee’s ninth graders will eventually earn a four-year or
two-year degree.
The state’s flagship institution, the University of Tennessee,
is widely seen as a ho-hum research university subject to rapid
turnover of presidents. At the state’s community colleges, two-
thirds of the students fail to transfer to four-year institutions
or to graduate. And the state’s parsimony in
funding has pushed tuition so high that the
National Center for Public Policy andHigher
Education (which publishes
National CrossTalk
gave Tennessee an F in college affordability in
2008.The situation has only worsened since
“Large states like California andNew
York, especially if they see themselves having
a proud history, can be very difficult places to
get consensus on reform,” said Jones. “A place
like Tennessee is an easier environment to work
in because it’s smaller, and no one is kidding
themselves about the need to get the job done.”
The high concept behind the Tennessee
plan is disarmingly simple:The state will reward
each campus according to its “outcomes”—the production of
degrees, retention of students, and other measurable factors—
rather than its enrollment. Each institution will be given its own
set of goals and will be measured according to its success in
Jamie Woodson, a Republican state senator, says that
“rewarding higher education with larger budgets is not
part of the conversation. The conversation is about
Tennessee, long at
the bottom of the
higher education
heap, is throwing
out the rule books
that have governed
its state colleges
and universities.
Wade Payne, Black Star, for CrossTalk