:Chattanooga; :Nov 29, 2009; :Perspective; :61


COMMENTARY

Present system of incentives has it backwards

Andy Berke State senator D-Chattanooga

Remember the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel get jobs on a candy-manufacturing line? (For the young, there’s a YouTube of the famous scene that’s been viewed more than 735,000 times.) Their lack of training and job skills was apparent as the chocolates accelerated in frequency and pace. Fortunately for us, they made memorable television look easier than making edible food.

    Most businesses in Southeast Tennessee don’t, however, make TV shows. Not long ago I took a tour through a McKee Foods baking line. McKee makes its delicious treats with remarkably few people putting their hands on the materials. Instead, robotics and computers largely control the machines preparing and baking the snacks.

    At the end of the morning, I asked McKee executives what their workforce would look like in the future. Their response: It would consist more and more of engineers and people trained to make the robotics operate properly and more efficiently. Lucy and Ethel would be even more lost today.

    Like McKee, employers of all types are demanding more from their workers. They
expect employees to show up on day one possessing complex computer skills, problem-solving ability, and critical thinking. And, most of all, they expect a college degree.

    Prospective Tennessee employers looking to locate here contact our Department of Economic and Community Development and ask for the educational attainment level of the local workforce before making the decision about where to move. If an employer is spending money to put a business here, it wants to know it will have a highquality workforce from the beginning.

    But here is the answer those prospective employers get: Tennessee ranks 43rd in graduating people from college.

    That won’t do. And that’s why our future economic development is built on graduating more people from college.

    Tennessee has made strides on making college more accessible to high school students, but we fail them once they get there: Our public colleges all have graduation rates that run from 37 percent to 64 percent.

    If we had high schools with 37 percent graduation rates, we would know something was seriously wrong. When we invest even more tax dollars in a student’s higher education, why are we not similarly motivated to act?

    I believe in incentives, so how do we encourage our colleges and universities? Right now, state government allocates funds to public colleges based largely on enrollment — on the 14th day of the fall semester. Our funding formula does not take graduation or retention rates into account.

    In other words, Tennessee provides incentives to its colleges to attract more students at the start of school, not at the end, when it counts.

    I think we have it backwards. We should realign our incentives so that we are paying schools to retain kids from year to year and push them to earn a meaningful degree.

    There are those who will say this market approach is too harsh. They are right to be concerned, but many of the problems can be addressed by assuring that we understand the different roles of all the schools we support. We should recognize that a research institution such as UT-Knoxville has a different student body from UTC, and we should expect different graduation rates. The Knoxville campus, though, should be measured against its peers with similar student bodies across the country, just as UTC, Austin Peay and others should be. By comparing apples to apples, we can continue to encourage institutions to play a critical role of providing a step up for all Tennesseans.

    We must also recognize that we must strengthen the entire educational system, from top to bottom. Thirtyeight percent of UTC’s student body takes some kind of remedial or developmental course. Even UTC’s present graduation rate is a testament to the hard work of the UTC faculty — and students.

    From pre-kindergarten all the way through higher education, we must think of our system not as a bunch of different institutions, but as one ladder. The only way our citizens climb to the top is if every rung is as sturdy as possible. Each step makes it more likely the student can make the next one, but the goal at every level should be that everyone gets to the top.

    A simple statistic tells the story: For Americans 16 to 24 years old, the average high school dropout makes $8,358; a high school graduate, $14,601; and a college graduate, $24,797.

    Tennessee has, in large part, gotten what it asked for. We have hired well-trained, accomplished individuals to run our universities. We have asked them to expand access to their campuses, and we have given them incentives to do that. They have served us well by providing unparalleled access to higher education.

    Now, it is time to ask more, and to provide new incentives for success. I am confident the talented educators in our colleges and universities will respond.

    Tennessee’s economic future cannot be built on our citizens standing in a food line, wrapping candy. Invest in college graduation, however, and it can be every bit as sweet.

    Democrat Andy Berke is state senator from Tennessee District 10, which includes parts of Hamilton and Marion counties. He can be reached at sen. andy.berke@legislature.state. tn.us.