Higher Education Leaders Discuss Costs, Job Market Demands

In a roomful of state education and business leaders that met at the Governor’s mansion this week, the discussion about higher education reform was nautical-themed.

Economists talked about Tennessee “treading water” while other states and countries zoom by with improving education. Gov. Bill Haslam referred to reforming higher education as an “everyone in the boat” process. One speaker said it would take “all hands on deck” to repair the gap between higher education and the workforce.

Tennessee’s higher education system, it would seem, is a sinking ship waiting to be saved.

According to the leaders gathered, the real question at hand is how to get post-secondary schools to crank out people ready for real-world jobs rather than the classroom. And also, how to get more people in those classrooms in the first place.

The problem is threefold, said Haslam. Jobs are scarce in Tennessee. Employers are increasingly demanding their employees be more skilled and better educated. And at the same time, the cost of post-secondary education is rising.

“The reality is that while costs continue to go up, we need more graduates—not less—in Tennessee, and those graduates need to be better prepared for the workforce than they are currently,” Haslam told reporters after hosting the higher education summit in Conservation Hall attached to the governor’s residence Tuesday.

This comes in the wake of hikes in tuition and fees at colleges across the state.

“We’re pricing a lot of middle class people, whose parents may be unemployed right now, out of the chance of going to college,” House Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, told reporters last week.

The risk, according to Haslam, is “that Tennessee doesn’t prepare the graduates that we need for the workforce and that all these businesses that we’re recruiting go somewhere else. It’s really that simple.”

On the flip side, he said, “If we give them the graduates and the workforce they need, I think they’re going to come here or stay here.”

Proposed solutions included better career advising, devising methods of measuring the outcome of higher education, and developing metrics for testing the quality of education that students get along the way.

The summit was inconclusive, introducing ideas about what to do but eliciting “no promises” from the governor, who will be holding roundtables with business leaders and college officials over the next six weeks to discuss what they want out of a trained workforce.

The governor invited members of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, and officers of the Tennessee Business Roundtable and Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.

Also included on the invite were the speakers of the state House and Senate and the chairmen of the House and Senate finance and Education committees, positions all held by Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Representative Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who was not present, said the governor’s selection process left Democrats out: “While I commend Governor Bill Haslam on beginning a review of higher education, I am disappointed that he has chosen to do so in a partisan manner. … House Democrats stand ready to have a serious discussion about higher education.”

Haslam defended his choice, saying “there’ll be plenty of time for legislative input. This wasn’t about that. This was about calling the three boards together.”

The governor said he doesn’t know if he’ll approach the General Assembly with a higher education package next spring or if his first wave of changes can be made administratively.

“My sense is that a lot more of this will be internal to the schools and the systems than it will be legislative. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if we ended up with one or two structural issues that we bring to the (legislature),” he said.

As for reforming how the universities are governed, Tennessee isn’t ready for a complete overhaul, he said.

“I don’t think we’re ready to go there yet. I think governance is part of it, but I want to emphasize I don’t think that’s the root of the issue. The root of the issue is more around cost and access and quality, and governance structure is a piece of that,” Haslam said.