Watch the full meeting recording here, and view THEC’s presentation here.

1. Tennessee higher education enrollment is down overall, with a few exceptions.

According to Dr. Emily House, Director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), higher education enrollment is down this fall 2021 across the state. Specifically, there was an approximate 7% decline at community colleges and a 4% decline across all universities during this past fall semester. One of the biggest populations affected by enrollment drops during COVID-19 were adults (for reasons including lack of childcare, challenges with online learning, job loss, etc.). Dr. House noted that adults are an important target for their community college marketing. She stressed that despite challenges, there are still robust college access and outreach operations happening at the state level with nonprofit partners such as TNAchieves. However, the state’s newest public university, UT Southern, and UT Knoxville were two exceptions, as their enrollment increased during the fall of 2021. During Q&A, UT President Randy Boyd said that applications for UT Southern in the spring and fall 2022 were up 240% as a result of support from the state. 

2. The Tennessee Promise application numbers and degree production has increased.

While there have been enrollment challenges, Dr. House announced that Tennessee Promise preliminary numbers (since the application closed November 1st) were back at levels that existed prior to COVID-19, which is a positive step in the technical and community college sector.  Tennessee Promise is a scholarship and mentoring program that aims to increase the number of students that attend college by ensuring that students attend tuition-free at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or other eligible institutions that offer associate degrees. The Tennessee Promise scholarship includes the cost of tuition and mandatory fees that are not covered by other sources (Pell grant, HOPE scholarship Tennessee Student Assistance Award), and includes mentorship guidance to assist students through the admissions process. In addition to increased application numbers, Dr. House discussed how graduations were also up at both universities and career and technical colleges. Moreover, there was ongoing work happening in THEC to ensure alignment between workforce needs and institutional programs, including partnerships such as with Ford in West Tennessee and Blue Cross in East Tennessee. 

3. One of the main budget priorities at THEC is the outcomes-based funding formula. 

Tennessee is one of the few states that funds higher education institutions entirely on outcomes and production, rather than enrollment numbers. One of the main reasons THEC takes pride in the state’s outcomes based funding formula is its ability to keep tuition low, which is something the Commission has been committed to since 2016 when they received the authority to set a binding tuition increase range of between 0 and 3%. To keep this tuition range, THEC requested $90 million for the formula, which reflects inflation and growth and allows THEC to maintain it’s historically low tuition growth. Dr. House noted that THEC would need an additional $40 million to have a 0% tuition increase. During the Q&A, a question was asked about how drops in enrollment would impact the funding formula, and Dr. House pointed out that the formula uses a three year average. This means enrollment drops this past year would not have a significant impact overall on funding, even though it would be an essential part of the equation. Outside of the formula dollars, some other higher education priorities that were included in THEC’s budget request were safety & security for TCATs, ETSU’s orthopedic surgery department & addiction faculty, and UT’s veterinary recruitment & retention.

4. Large requests were made for capital improvements, including facilities, maintenance, accessibility, and special projects. 

Dr. House emphasised the need for facilities funding and capital improvements. Two of THEC’s main areas of focus this year are building renovation and assessing both the community workforce and needs for surrounding campuses. A request was made for 10 projects for 400 million dollars, which includes major renovations at ETSU, MTSU, TTU, UofM, and UTC. A request was also made for $175 million for deferred maintenance needs, $5 million for the electrical grid at TSU, and $17 million for demolition projects. Additionally, one special project of $15 million was discussed for ADA compliance. Dr. House noted that she has received a lot of feedback about accessibility issues for students with mobility and physical constraints. Lastly, another vital special project request was $5 million for the Commission to conduct a comprehensive facilities conditions survey to assess building needs on campuses across the state in order to map future renovations. 

5. A budget request was made to revamp Tennessee’s Summer Bridge Program. 

During the Q&A, there was a notable conversation about THEC’s budget request of $850,000 dollars for the Summer Bridge Program, which is an opportunity for students to spend time on campus and learn key skills for success in college. Students engage in intentional team building activities and are allowed to take remedial coursework. Dr. House described the pre-pandemic model, and how the online version did not have the same impact. The budget request would allow the program to be reimplemented and to continue to have a positive impact on our state’s college access work, as $500,000 of the request would go toward supporting Tennessee Promise students, and the other $350,000 would support students at HBCUs. The Summer Bridge Program has had positive results, including raising student persistence from year to year, and ultimately raising graduation rates by about 10-20 percentage points due to its community engagement and preparation.

Equity Considerations: 

  • As THEC reaches out to adults around community college enrollment marketing, how is the state intentionally reaching out Black and Latino communities? How can we raise enrollment and graduation rates for Black and Latino students? 
  • If the budget request for the state-wide facilities condition survey is approved, how will the state ensure that the results will impact future resource and funding allocations in an equitable way?
  • Considering the potential increased funding for ADA compliance, how is THEC working to meaningfully acquire community feedback about how to make our college campuses more accessible for students with disabilities?