Gov. Bill Haslam/The Tennessean
By Chas Sisk | The Tennessean
Experts discussed rising college costs and ways to make degrees more valuable in a Tuesday forum at the governor's mansion, kicking off efforts to revamp Tennessee's higher education system.
Three speakers from the academic and nonprofit worlds told Gov. Bill Haslam and other Tennessee officials that the nation is turning out too many college graduates with skills that do not match up to the needs of employers. They also said rising tuition is making it harder for families -- especially the poor -- to get post-secondary degrees and certificates at the same time employers are demanding them.
The speakers also suggested a handful of programs that Tennessee might use to raise graduation rates without watering down the value of college degrees.
"We're talking about increasing the number of degrees and quality and relevance to the marketplace, but cost is underlying all those discussions," Haslam said.
Haslam has said that improving Tennessee's higher education system will be one of his top priorities in the coming year, and the forum was to start officials toward drafting new plans for the state's four-year universities, two-year community colleges and technology centers.
A handful of Republican lawmakers attended the three-hour forum, as did senior officials from the Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee systems. No Democratic lawmakers came, saying they were excluded for political reasons.
"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 Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said in a statement. "When it comes to higher education, we need a diversity of opinions -- not the party line."
The meeting featured half-hour presentations from three experts in higher education: Bill Tucker, deputy director of policy development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Nicole Smith, an economist and professor at Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce; and Bill Zumeta, a professor at the University of Washington.
Each of the three gave a general assessment of the problems they believe are keeping students from going to college, leading employers to complain of a lack of skilled labor and pushing up the cost of tuition. None laid out a comprehensive plan for fixing higher education, though they suggested some programs that could chip away at the system's shortcomings.
These included better coordination between colleges and high schools in what students are taught, offering more financial aid based on need and using computer technology to guide students through college.
Audience members said the forum was helpful in that it brought attention to the problems facing higher education.
"If you're going to tell me that people need skills and there are X number of jobs out there, that needs to trickle down to the students I'm advising," said Linda Weeks, an English and composition professor at Dyersburg State Community College who attended the forum. "You need to be telling them where should I be sending them, what should I be advising them."