Bend or Break


Free community college, whether completely free or only low-cost, is a powerful way for students to reduce the price of a bachelor’s degree or expedite entry into the workforce.

Governor Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise has created an enrollment surge for Chattanooga State Community College and Cleveland State Community College; headcounts are up 60% and 17% respectively, reports the Times Free Press: Sounds like a runaway choo-choo. However, negative consequences for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga followed: Freshman enrollment slumped 13%.

There are two university responses to this community college work-readiness or get-into-a-university-cheap blueprint by Haslam.

One — Regional and comprehensive universities, as well as second-tier state universities and the array of private colleges that are not among the nation’s elite, can continue the hand-wringing regarding shrinking state funding – it’s beginning to rival baseball as the national pastime. This is not to diminish the deleterious impact of reduced state resources on higher education.   But, whining and moaning is not going to reduce runaway costs or increase the failing efficacy of too many colleges and universities.

Two — Seek ideas and innovation. Hand-wringing institutions need to develop strategies to capture transfer students who have one year or better yet, an Associate’s degree from a community college. I know from experience these approaches are possible. The school where I work has a half dozen articulation agreements that allow a 2+2 transfer of students from community colleges in Illinois and one with Vincennes University in Indiana. The four-year completion rate of these students is over 95%, while regular freshmen finish at half that percentage.

All members of the academic community must be nimble. Community college courses are often slightly different, but we adapt with minimal, if any, sacrifice of quality. Additionally, community colleges willingly work for their students modifying curriculum and courses to facilitate transfer. In some cases our faculty has provided syllabi, textbooks, and even hiring priorities to community colleges for heightened transfer effectiveness.

Some risk-taking universities recognize the difficulty of reducing the cost of a university education and, as a proactive response, offer the freshman year free. Will it be effective? Who knows? But Texas State University System gets an “E” for excellent in my grade book for innovative efforts to reduce costs and increase accessibility: It’s better than “the wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

State flagships, the University of Illinois for example, do not have to respond this way as relentless enrollment pressure, with high freshman application rates, provide a steady number of capable students who readily foot the bill to attain what they believe is an excellent education. True or not, perception becomes reality. Even with Tennessee’s free community college plan, UT Knoxville is experiencing dramatic freshman enrollment growth.

Middle Tennessee State University responded when freshman enrollment dropped by 4%, they enriched efforts to recruit community college students and the transfer rate is up 12%. Treating transfer students with energy, attention, and the recognition that they are different will yield positive results.

Is this to suggest that the community college experience is equal to a residential institution’s freshman and sophomore years? No. But, when one is free, or nearly so, and the other requires a second mortgage or life-choking debt for 20 or 30 years, cost effectiveness may trump absolute equality.

The elite private research institutions, and flagship public universities, as well as brightly focused liberal arts colleges will have to do nothing to respond to this trend. But every other institution in the nation, nearly 2,000 in all, with enrollment of about 10,000,000 students, should realize the game-changing attractiveness of community college transfer as a nearly invaluable public service in reducing educational costs to families and a means to add value to, and expand, the university experience.

Or, drastically cut tuition, fees, personnel and amenities and quit grousing.

Four-year institutions, public and private, that don’t refine missions in response to changing demographics, the reduced number of college ready freshman, ever-increasing costs, and the indisputable knowledge that a college student in 2015 is not the same as a college student in 1985 are in serious trouble.

Did I say bend or break?


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