Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017

Haslam hopeful for higher ed in new year

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We hope all Tennesseans have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Crissy and I fell blessed to live in this great state, and it is an honor to serve as your governor.

We have a lot to be grateful for, and all of us in state government are fortunate to have the opportunity to serve you.

While this is a time to look back at the accomplishments of the last year, we are actually more excited about what's ahead. We are particularly looking forward to some exciting times in higher education.

We have been pleased by the response and participation in the Tennessee Promise, where 59,635 have applied to be part of the program in its first two years, attending community colleges and technical schools (TCATs) free of tuition and fees. But our work in succeeding in higher education is far from over.

The next key step in our Drive to 55, the overall initiative to have 55 percent of Tennesseans with postsecondary credentials by the year 2025, is a proposal we're developing called the FOCUS Act - Focus on College and University Success. The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that colleges and universities are organized, supported and empowered in their efforts to increase the number of Tennesseans with postsecondary credentials.

This legislation is designed to enhance student success across higher education by providing more focused support for our community colleges and colleges of applied technology, increasing autonomy and local control for the Tennessee Board of Regents universities and strengthening the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

For the 2015-2016 school year, we have seen a 24.7-percent increase in first-time freshmen enrollment at community colleges and a 20-percent increase in first-time freshmen at our TCATs. With that surge of enrollment at our 13 community colleges and 27 technical schools, we see the need to have a sharpened focus by the Board of Regents on those 40 schools.

Meanwhile, the creation of local boards for Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Technological University and the University of Memphis will give those schools increased autonomy. Under our plan, they will transition from sole TBR oversight to a new model that will have a local governing board. These boards will appoint the campus president, manage the school's budget and set tuition while overseeing other tasks. TBR would still provide key administrative support for these schools.

Our plan will have THEC providing greater coordination across the state, including capital project management, institutional mission approval and higher education finance strategy.

Early this month, we announced members of a transition task force to offer guidance on the FOCUS Act during the legislative process and implementation of the plan if approved. The task force, which is comprised of higher education leaders and professionals, will have two components: a steering committee to provide guidance to the governor and a working group that will provide technical assistance and report to the steering committee.

Since the launch of Drive to 55, we have made tremendous progress. Because of the interest among students, we have become the No. 1 state in the nation for federal student aid application completion. Tennessee is at the forefront of innovation in public higher education.

Our state's future in economic development will depend on us having a workforce that is ready for high-skill, high-wage jobs. As part of that effort, we have to make sure our colleges and universities are strategically aligned in supporting student success. It's not just about access to high education but about success for our students and schools. We believe the FOCUS Act will put us on that path.

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Bill Haslam, college, column, Gov. Bill Haslam, opinion, TN Promise
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