Community Colleges Have Room For An Influx Of Students, But Will Tennessee’s Budget?

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, oversees the state's community colleges and tech schools, among others. (Photo courtesy Tennessee State University)

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, oversees the state’s community colleges and tech schools, among others. (Photo courtesy Tennessee State University)

The man in charge of Tennessee’s community colleges and tech schools says there’s plenty of room for an expected influx of students—around 5,600 over the next few years, according to one estimate.

That’s once the state starts paying tuition for graduating high schoolers, under a proposal the governor will soon sign into law called the Tennessee Promise.

Enrollment in the state’s community colleges has actually been down by several thousand compared to when it peaked a few years ago, just after the recession hit, and Chancellor John Morgan says right now the system has plenty of capacity.

Morgan says college enrollment typically goes up when the economy turns sour as more people flee the weak job market.  Enrollment then fades as employment becomes easier to find, and that trend is particularly pronounced among community colleges. (Courtesy TBR)

Morgan says college enrollment typically goes up when the economy turns sour as more people flee the weak job market. Enrollment then fades as employment becomes easier to find, and that trend is particularly pronounced among community colleges. (Courtesy TBR)

Some funding “to be seen”

Tuition dollars for Tennessee Promise scholarships come from the state’s crafty use of state lottery reserves.  But paying for a student’s tuition alone won’t fully cover their enrollment’s true cost to the state.  A student at tech school’s tuition might only pay for a third of the total cost of their education, with the rest already effectively subsidized by taxpayers.  Morgan says at community colleges as well, the state kicks in maybe 40 percent of the cost.

In other words, while the Tennessee Promise pays for tuition, that on its own won’t cover the entire cost of the expected influx of students.  What will, barring another increase in tuition, is “to be seen,” Morgan says.

Janet Smith, president of Columbia State Community College, acknowledges the first few years under the Tennessee Promise will require schools to ante up.  School funding is based not just on sheer headcount but on the number of degrees awarded, in order to incentivize seeing students through to graduation. So, Smith says, schools will be banking on ultimately being able to get students through.

Dropouts

Many of the new students won’t be the academic high flyers who would otherwise nab Tennessee’s Hope scholarship.  Nor will they be so poor as to qualify for federal Pell grants.  “It’s kinda those students who are in between,” Morgan says.

From the state’s standpoint, it’s looking for a return on its investment in the form of a more educated workforce.  So, won’t it be a waste every time an 18-year-old the state pays for ends up quitting?

Not exactly, Morgan says, because someone who enrolls and starts earning a degree before dropping out still has a better shot of coming back and finishing later. “It’s not easy, but it’s easi-er to get those folks back into institutions to finish their credential.”

And Smith agrees: “If a student has walked through the door before, then that door is much wider for them to walk through in their mind the second time.”

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