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Haslam Praises Tech Centers for Efficiency, Putting Grads in Jobs

Tennessee’s Republican governor proposes cutting higher education by $20.2 million over last year. But the state’s new funding formula for higher education emphasizes outcomes over mere enrollment, which state tech center administrators are confident ultimately bodes well for their operations.

While the state’s four-year schools would reduce spending by the millions under Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget, public trade schools that turn out welders, cosmetologists and repairmen will face more modest cuts that average less than $50,000 per school.

The plan, which largely shields the state’s technology centers from a proposed 2.5 percent decrease in state spending next year, points to Haslam’s emphasis on applying tax dollars where he believes they are most cost-efficient. During a tour of the Tennessee Technology Center at Nashville on Wednesday, Haslam said the technology centers are on the front line of providing the sort of job training the state and companies here need.

“Our technology centers are doing great work, and they’re providing the real labor workforce training our employers need,” Haslam said. “When you have an 80 percent completion rate and about an 80 percent placement rate, that’s a really good track record.

“I’m a fan of what’s happening here. We want to see if we can do more of this.”

Haslam this week proposed cutting higher education by 2 percent, which translates into a $20.2 million reduction.

But the state’s new funding formula for higher education emphasizes outcomes rather than simply student enrollment, so the technology centers figure to stand up well in that system.

The technology centers are listed as a $1.3 million cut in Haslam’s budget proposal, but with 27 locations across the state that averages only $48,000 per school. The Nashville center Haslam toured has a budget of $2.3 million and 899 students, $2,600 per student.

“For most folks, I don’t think there is any drastic impact there in terms of this year’s budget on how it will affect the technology centers,” Haslam said. “We worked hard to where we’re providing direct services like this to try to minimize the impact.”

Haslam proposed a $30.2 billion budget, which includes a 1.6 percent raise for state workers but is down overall from last year’s spending plan.

The University of Tennessee system, which operates separately from the state board that oversees the technology centers, is facing $7 million in reductions in the governor’s proposal, including $3.4 million from the UT-Knoxville campus.

Haslam has proposed cuts of $1.9 million at the University of Memphis, $1.7 million at Middle Tennessee State University and just over $1 million at East Tennessee State University. Tennessee Tech is looking at a reduction of $825,000, and Tennessee State would see its budget reduced by $686,000 in the plan.

Technology center officials say their system provides a model that works well, with an emphasis on putting people in jobs without burdening them with a lot of debt. They point to the fact students can have a significant amount of their costs covered through Pell grants and the state’s Wilder-Naifeh technical skills grant, the technology centers’ version of the state’s lottery scholarship program.

The Wilder-Naifeh grant is named for two legislators behind it, the late Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Somerville and Speaker Emeritus Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who is still a member of the General Assembly. The grant, introduced in 2004, provides up to $2,000 per year for students who meet attendance requirements and maintain a C average or better. The total financial aid available can cover about 70 percent of students’ costs, officials say.

The technology centers are largely trying to get away from the federal student loan program, said James King, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees them.

“I don’t want our students leaving here with debt if they don’t have to,” King said.

The technology center approach can result in more immediate employment than the traditional four-year model at a major university.

“We’re graduating folks on time. Our students come in, they get out, and they can get on with their lives,” King said.

Taxpayers can be assured the technology centers are motivated to place graduates in jobs because their accreditation depends on it. The centers are accredited by the Council on Occupational Education.

“It’s not just placement into some job. It’s placement into the field where they’re trained,” King said.

All but one of the state’s technology centers is a free-standing facility, one in Chattanooga being the exception. The programs cover more than 50 fields of study. Haslam’s tour on Wednesday exposed him to programs as diversified as nursing and welding.

Mark Lenz, director of the Nashville school, conducted Haslam’s tour.

Haslam was hardly the first dignitary to visit the Nashville campus. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, who have made contributions to education in Tennessee from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, visited the Nashville school last November.

The 27 technology centers help make the Board of Regents system the sixth largest system of public higher education in the nation. The Regents system includes six four-year universities — Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Tennessee State, East Tennessee State and the University of Memphis — and 13 community colleges.

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