Haslam talks state education challenges
BY JOEL DAVIS (email@example.com)
The Maryville College Civic Leadership Luncheon on Friday gave Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam the opportunity to discuss the educational challenges facing the state.
The percentage of adults in Tennessee with a college degrees is only 21 percent compared to the national average of 30 percent, Haslam said.
“We have a major issue in Tennessee, and if we solve it, it’s going to take a lot of different approaches. It’s going to take our public four-year institutions and our two- year institutions, but private institutions have a role in that, too. Maryville College has a strong tradition of being a fine liberal arts school.”
The lack of adults with college degrees hurts the state’s ability to recruit jobs. “That’s an incredible competitive disadvantage,” he said. “... We don’t compete well when it comes to the education attainment level of our population.”
The state needs to improve access to community colleges for students “in terms of geographical access and in terms of monetary access,” Haslam said. “.... We’re going to have a statewide college access program.”
In the past, the governor has championed the work of “knoxAchieves,” a last-dollar scholarship program in Knox County, and programs such as the new “blountAchieves” that help increase access to college.
When asked if an increased emphasis on the use of community colleges would hurt his institution, Maryville College President Tom Bogart said no. “We have a large number of transfers especially from Tennessee community colleges. They are wonderful partners.”
The state has $1.8 billion less funding than last year after federal stimulus funding dried up. With money in short supply given the state’s budget challenges, some of the improvement will have to come from changing the state’s culture concerning educational expectations, Haslam said. “If we’re going to close that gap with the rest of the country, Maryville College has a role to play in that. We’re going to push the importance and the criticality of a good education.”
Haslam was joined by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in answering audience questions at the end of the luncheon. When asked about whether the emphasis on reading and math squeezed out other subjects, Alexander said the solution would involve giving schools more freedom.
“I think longer school days and better-structured school days. They don’t have to cost much more money as long as you’re not restricted by state rules and union contracts.”
The vulnerability of higher education funding was also a topic of discussion. “Higher education is one of the places we had to cut (in the upcoming budget),” Haslam said. “(It was cut) 2 percent, which is obviously something we don’t want to do. We cannot make college unaffordable for middle-class families.”
Alexander said the level of state support versus the financial burden on college students had been “blown all out of whack” because health care costs had squeezed the funding available for higher ed.
“I’m not putting a political note on that, but it does show you the interconnectedness of everything you do,” Haslam added. “If we’re going to increase the money we spend once place — health care — it’s going to have to come out from somewhere.”