Hoping To Get Haslam To Open Purse Strings, Higher Ed Officials Tout Their Successes | Nashville Public Radio

Hoping To Get Haslam To Open Purse Strings, Higher Ed Officials Tout Their Successes

Nov 7, 2017

The governor is hearing funding requests from every department in the state this week, and the routine is a familiar one — hit him with the highlights and then ask for money. 

For the state's higher education agency, one of the top success stories was the latest data from Tennessee Promise, the free community college program for graduating high school seniors: 56 percent of the first class of students, who started in the fall of 2014, have either completed school or are still in the process of getting a degree. That's a significantly higher rate than their peers who were not part of Tennessee Promise.

It was one of the successes that higher education officials touted Tuesday when presenting the governor a wish list for next year's budget, which University of Tennessee president Joe DiPietro joked about at the beginning of his presentation. 

"This hearing is a bit like my sitting on Santa Claus's lap and telling him all the good things that the boys and girls have done at the University of Tennessee ... and then then flipping out my Christmas list," he said. 

For UT, that meant laying out how they've kept tuition increases at a record low — something the governor has advocated for — and then asking for funding for a Center of Addiction Science and a new agriculture building, among other requests.

For community and technical colleges, one of their big-ticket items was a $7 million request to double the number of advisors on campus. Right now, there's only about one full-time advisor for every 200 students, which officials say is too large a load.

Degree Guarantees

The Tennessee Board of Regents also proposed one of the best received initiatives of the hearing: a warranty program for some of their degrees. 

Business leaders often talk about the so-called skills gap, saying there aren't enough workers who can do the jobs they need to fill, especially in technical fields. So Tennessee's public colleges have designed some of their degree or certificate programs with local industries in mind.

Tennessee Board of Regents chancellor Flora Tydings says starting this fall, they're going even further to make sure businesses are happy: Students who graduate from a technical program will receive a warranty card.

"If within a year, any graduate that's employed comes forth with an employer, and they say they do not have the skill sets for which we say we have trained them, we will take them back and retrain them for free," she said.

This idea seemed to delight Gov. Bill Haslam.

"I love the warranty idea. That's awesome," he said. "That's accountability at its finest."

This is largely just a gesture to demonstrate that the public college system stands behind its programs. TBR isn't budgeting any actual money for it because Tydings says it's something that rarely, if ever, comes up. But she says if it does, it will help them figure out if any of their programs need to be changed.

Outsourcing Disputes Linger

Overall, Haslam lavished praise on higher ed in the state, especially given that the program he championed, Tennessee Promise, is doing so well.

But he did end the hearing by admonishing a recent outsourcing decision by UT's campuses across the state. They've decided not to privatize their facilities maintenance, despite estimates that it could save millions of dollars. All three campuses argued that the savings would be just a fraction of what was projected.

Haslam has championed that privatization, and his administration awarded real estate giant Jones Lang LaSalle a statewide contract for the services. He expressed his disappointment over how the process has played out.

Still, Haslam brushed off the idea there would be any recrimination against UT Knoxville, Chattanooga or Martin over their decisions.

"We meant what we said: This is a tool for you to use if you found it to be to your benefit. And we’re not going to give less money to higher education because you didn’t do what people think we wanted you to do," he said.

DiPietro, the president of the UT system, said he will hold the chancellors of those campuses accountable for finding equivalent savings without outsourcing.