FOCUS Act will improve Tennessee’s universities

I wanted to share this opinion piece that I wrote about the FOCUS Act. It ran in today’s edition of the Tennessean.

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FOCUS Act will improve Tennessee’s universities

The FOCUS Act, a bill currently not familiar to most Tennesseans, will produce six public universities far superior in quality to those you see today.

So what should Tennesseans know? Why should you care?

Within the past six years, Tennessee has emerged as a national leader in higher education. In order to continue our state’s leadership in this area, we must hold higher education accountable for fulfilling its primary role: to provide relevant educational opportunities to fuel the state’s economy.

Starting with the 2010 Complete College Tennessee Act, Tennessee committed to student success and  would no longer tolerate poor retention and graduation rates in our public colleges and universities. The act established a funding formula which incentivized colleges and universities to successfully graduate students, and required public colleges and universities to provide students with reliable expectations for transferring credits.

Gov. Haslam quickly followed by introducing Drive to 55 and its ambitious goal of reaching 55 percent of Tennessee adults with a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. A major push toward that goal came with Tennessee Promise, which provides free community or applied technology college tuition to any Tennessee high school graduate.

The next step in Tennessee’s 21st century higher education effort involves restructuring the governance of the six public universities currently under the Tennessee Board of Regents and charges the remaining Board of Regents to place a sharper focus on community and technology colleges.

A bill, submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly as the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act, involves Austin Peay State University, East Tennessee State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University, Tennessee Tech University and the University of Memphis. While maintaining state control, the FOCUS Act allows each public university to establish its own independent state university board.

As historic as this proposed new structure is (the current TBR has been around for over 40 years), the question for most Tennesseans is likely, “Why should I care?” This may appear like a lot of furniture being rearranged, but for what benefit?

Higher education is a different enterprise than when the TBR was created in 1972. Then, state funding provided 70-80 percent of universities’s budgets. Now only 20-30 percent comes from the state. This means that public universities must now aggressively pursue students by providing the most valuable educational experience for their tuition dollars. While the tuition sticker price for students has gone up, the ultimate value of a relevant college degree in today’s world economy has never been higher.

Although some disagree, I believe competition produces good results for students because it leads to stronger, more relevant and cost-effective institutions. However, that achievement requires a different governance structure that provides each institution autonomy to move freely and respond quickly to the changing dynamics and demands now placed on higher education.

The current structure, designed for control and stability, served us well in the past. However, now we need speed and agility. Local autonomy is important because the educational markets for these six universities are very different. The market for the University of Memphis is very different than that for Tennessee Tech or East Tennessee State.

So why should Tennesseans care?

The ability to become the best university possible is ultimately what the FOCUS Act promises.

You will see universities able to thoughtfully and quickly adapt to changing public needs, providing the most relevant, cost-effective educational opportunities to drive Tennessee’s future economies.

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