Tennessee needs to start over with Tennessee Promise
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently highlighted the current trend to focus on vocational training as a cure-all for job preparedness, student debt and poor matriculation.
As Leonhardt points out, vocational education may be beneficial in the short term but the long-term prospect will leave workers out in the cold. Leonhardt states, “Vocational education, done right, helps workers find jobs when they are young. But as they age — and job requirements change — workers are often not well prepared for the changes, according to the study, published in The Journal of Human Resources. Rather than retraining workers, many companies decide to let them go and hire other workers.”
Leonhardt emphasizes vocational training should not come at the expense of general education. He recommends prioritizing and expanding efforts to increase four-year college graduates who receive a “broad, flexible education” who will have a much better chance in the job market and will be able to adapt to market changes.
Leonhardt’s points are applicable to the Tennessee Promise program. Gov. Bill Haslam and former Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd touted Promise as a panacea for joblessness and as “free” or “found” money because taxes were not raised to fund it. However, the price tag is very high for students who have shown the academic skills and work ethic to receive the Tennessee HOPE scholarship and succeed in receiving a four-year college degree.
HOPE scholarships were reduced from $4,000 to $3,500 per year for freshmen and sophomores and the Aspire Award for students whose family income is $36,000 or less was cut from $3,000 per year to $2,250. The HOPE and Aspire scholarships will never increase again as all future lottery revenue growth has been directed to Promise, reducing the HOPE scholarship to a stipend as tuitions rise.
Promise recipients have five semesters to complete the two-year program so graduation rates for the first class are not yet available. Still, some indicators are very discouraging.
Less than 5 percent of the 1,300 students at Southwest Community College who began Promise two years ago completed the program. In a May 2016 Tennessean story, Promise-architect Mike Krause, now executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, admitted that the significant number of Promise drop outs were academically unprepared for college. Conversely, the HOPE scholarship program has high retention and graduation rates because students arrive prepared for college, having worked to earn the scholarship in the first place.
Promise, designed for students coming straight from high school, does not target the blue-collar group most in need of help.
Stanford professor Eric Hanushek, a researcher of The Journal of Human Resources study, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “The largest problem of skills in the U.S. today isn’t a shortage of young workers with specific competencies. Instead it is a need for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs.”
Tennessee needs to go back to the drawing board with Promise and consider the data in the study. Long term planning is essential for workers to have opportunities for good-paying jobs. Students with the aptitude and will to succeed should be rewarded with HOPE scholarships that reflect rising tuition so they do not graduate with crippling debt.
All tuition assistance programs should teach skills that are flexible and give people the tools needed to retain good-paying jobs throughout their working years.
Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, represents District 9 in the U.S. House of Representatives. As a former state legislator, Cohen worked to create the Tennessee Education Lottery that funds the HOPE Scholarship.