:Chattanooga; :Dec 6, 2009; :Front Page; :1

Two plus two

Community colleges eyed as launching pads for four-year degrees

By Joan Garrett jgarrett@timesfreepress.com

Online: Watch students discussing community colleges. Hear Gov. Phil Bredesen talk about his plan. Read the Tennessee Higher Education Commission transfer repor t and previous stories. Comment.

    If Gov. Phil Bredesen has his way, many more Tennessee high school graduates will start their college education at two-year schools and then transfer to universities to earn their degrees.

    If state leaders don’t make the change now, Tennessee will pay later, he said.

    “I think Tennessee has got to solve this problem in this new economy of how you get more people with higher levels of education,” he said.

Tennessee needs to “settle down and figure out how to move the knowledge base of our workers up the ladder like other states are doing.” In his final year in office, the governor will push an aggressive agenda for higher education to: Boost Tennessee’s poor college graduation rate; Ensure Tennessee has an educated, trainable work force; Raise the prominence of the state’s community colleges; Create a system in which
universities take only the best and brightest as freshmen.

    He acknowledges the uphill climb. Just 22 percent of Tennesseans have a bachelor’s degree. The sixyear graduation rates at fouryear schools and three-year graduation rates at two-year schools across the state are 45 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Fifty percent of all UTC freshmen have to take remedial classes.

    “If you are not ready to do the work at a standard fouryear college, you need to go to a two-year school and get ready,” the governor said. “We need to get the four-year colleges out of the remedial business.”

    Gov. Bredesen, who has wanted to make significant changes in higher education for the last several years, is the chairman of both the Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee systems. He has talked about merging the state’s two higher education systems, eliminating duplicated degree programs, slowing the growth of graduate programs at smaller colleges and making the University of Tennessee at Knoxville one of the nation’s leading research institutions.

    He now says he is prepared to roll out a plan that dramatically changes Tennessee’s higher education landscape. His approach is earning national support.

    Experts call Tennessee an “opportunity state” for higher education change and are working closely with state leaders to reform the system. They see Tennessee, with its low graduation rates, as primed and ready for a turnaround.

    “You don’t get the dramatic change that we need unless it’s on the governor’s agenda,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Lumina foundations. He is consulting the governor and lawmakers on reform proposals.

    Mr. Jones, whose organization selected Tennessee as one of six states to work with, is promoting a mandatory statewide transfer system, similar to those established in Indiana, California and Florida.

    Creating a “two-plus-two” college system in Tennessee won’t be easy, some say.

    Two years at a community college is not the same as the first two years at a university, and the gap in quality will be hard to overcome, said Gavin Townsend, a professor of art history at UTC and past president of the Faculty Senate.

    “Many of the students who come to us from community colleges don’t have the background we are looking for and the preparation necessary to succeed in our upper-division courses,” he said.

    “This is not to take away from what the two-year schools are doing. It’s just a reality check,” he said.

    In addition, the twoplus-two system may allow community colleges to stray away from their traditional responsibility of providing affordable, regional career and technical training, some say.


Overcoming resistance to change will be challenging but not impossible, said Mr. Jones, who has talked with a number of state legislators about the issue.

    “There is a real commitment there to shake the system up and get dramatic change,” he said. “The hardest part is starting. Once you start, it becomes the new way of doing business.”

    State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who is on the governor’s hand-picked higher education task force, said he is on board.

    “If we do nothing, we will keep getting the same results,” said Sen. Berke. “UTC spends a significant amount of its resources on remedial education. We want to free up that part of UTC’s budget so it can use those dollars and resources to get kids graduated and have places like Chattanooga State prepare them for UTC.”

    Still, shifting the mindset of students is key to making a two-plus-two system work. With the recession and the demand for affordable college degrees soaring, an attitude adjustment may be around the corner.

    “Students have to know that they need post-secondary (education), and the local community college is the cheapest and fastest option for them,” said David Wright, associate executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

    “We have had an attitude that the university is the more preferable experience. As you have more people go to community colleges they have a chance to make their case that it is a value experience,” he said.

    Chattanooga State student Matthew Bettis said community college can be a good bridge to bachelor’s degreelevel work.

    “There used to be a stigma associated with community colleges, but they are getting so popular because they are cheaper,” said Mr. Bettis, who plans to transfer to Tennessee Tech.

    Still, tying community colleges so closely to universities can create confusion about what role each should play in higher education.

    Already, Chattanooga State offficials hope to shed the community college image of being the less glamorous arm of higher education by having dorms on the Amnicola Highway campus. Gov. Bredesen supports the project.

    A two-plus-two system may grease the aspirations of administrators at larger community colleges who think developing student housing also will lead to adding four-year degree programs, officials said.

    “I can just imagine that at some point the situation would beg the question, ‘Well, if we have all this residential infrastructure, now we need four-year programs,’” Mr. Wright said.

    This concerns some higher education officials who say that making two-year schools look more like their university peers will negate the main appeal of community colleges: the price.

    Building an infrastructure and implementing student services needed to support dorms at community colleges will cost schools money at a time when the state is cutting the budget for higher education, said Mr. Wright.

    In March, a Tennessee Board of Regents committee denied a request from Dyersburg State Community College to build a dorm on its campus using a private developer. Regents officials voiced concern that dorms would distract community colleges from their mission of providing regional job training.

    However, the idea is gaining momentum and can benefit students, Mr. Jones said.

    “The more you participate in campus through clubs, activities and athletics the more you are likely to graduate,” he said.



    Under Gov. Bredesen’s plan, community colleges would put greater focus on transferring students to fouryear institutions. Universities, especially UT, would become much more selective, allowing only the top tier to enter as freshmen.

    But first, kinks in state’s transfer system have to be ironed out, he said.

    The governor wants to mandate common courses between Regents and UT schools so students don’t lose credit hours or tuition when they choose to move from a two- to four-year school.

    “I really think we owe the students a clear understanding on the front end as to whether these courses are going to be acceptable at a four-year school,” Gov. Bredesen said.

    Transfer agreements in Tennessee exist between community colleges and universities such as Chattanooga State and UTC, but they often are not enforced, the governor said.

    “There is a patchwork of articulation agreements right now,” said Gov. Bredesen. “At the moment, it is kind of a hit-and-miss proposition.”

    Chattanooga State President Jim Catanzaro says he thinks the state should intervene legislatively to clean up what he considers messy transfer policies, and it needs to act fast if the state is going to address the flood of students entering community colleges. Chattanooga State has signed lots of transfer agreements with UTC, but problems persist.

    “It is very common (in other states) that chief executive officers of banks and corporations started at the community colleges and made their way to the universities,” he said. “That would not be common here. We have a history that needs to be overcome.”

    Officials with UTC say there is no legislative quick fix when dealing with college curriculum transfers. Students often meander through college without careful planning and need better advising at the community college level.

    On average students who start and end college at UTC graduate with 126 hours. A student who transfers to UTC from a community college graduates with 150 hours, an average number among the state’s four-year schools, THEC records show.

    “We are not adversely impacting transfer students with our transfer policies,” said Chuck Cantrell, a spokesman for UTC. “It doesn’t require an abnormal amount of classes for transfer students to graduate.”

    Statewide transfer agreements can be outlined by state law or they can be set by a joint resolution between the Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee System. The governor said he is trying to determine whether legislation is needed to fix the problem.

    He will present a formal plan on the issue in January, he said.



    The governor’s plan to make community colleges the commonly accepted launching pad for higher education is similar to the two-plustwo transfer systems first pioneered in Florida and California.

    In those states, community colleges are considered the entree into university life, Mr. Jones said.

    “The University of Florida was designed not to take freshmen but juniors and seniors,” he said.

    Mr. Jones, who served as the Indiana commissioner for higher education for 12 years, spearheaded that state’s shift to make community colleges the stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree. He said the process was slow and politically turbulent, but worth the effort.

    The partnership between community colleges and universities improved access to higher education in Indiana and improved college graduation rates, he said.

    The Florida College System, which long has used its community colleges as gateways to four-year colleges, has a three-year college graduation rate of 30 percent, nearly double the Southern region’s average of 16 percent. The national average is 20 percent.

    Establishing a transfer system “is going to be a pretty important part of what Tennessee needs to do,” Mr. Jones said. “It is becoming more typical for students to start their four-year degree at a community college because they are smaller, less threatening and cheaper.”

    And community colleges shouldn’t worry about losing their bread and butter as career training centers.

    “We have had this debate in Indiana,” he said. “It’s not necessarily either or. We have had huge growth in community colleges. Half of it was in the traditional technical programs that lead to jobs. Half were in the transfer programs.

    “ More importantly, making better use of community colleges will increase the credibility of Tennessee higher education from the ground up,” he said.


    The Tennessee Board of Regents system consists of 45 institutions with a combined annual enrollment of more than 190,000 students, making it the nation’s sixth-largest system of public higher education.

    The board oversees six state universities, 13 community colleges and 26 technology centers.

Source: Tennessee Board of Regents


    The University of Tennessee comprises campuses at Knoxville, Chattanooga, Martin, the Health Science Center at Memphis, the Space Institute at Tullahoma and the statewide Institute of Agriculture and Institute for Public Service.

    About 45,000 students are enrolled in the UT system.

Source: University of Tennessee

Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell Marshae Duckett works on homework for her displacement math class in the math lab at Chattanooga State.

Staff Photos by Allison Kwesell Alan Herweyer helps Brian Penny with his homework for his Introduction to Statistics class in the math lab at Chattanooga State Community College.

Phil Bredesen

Andrele Beaucicut asks Carmen Brady a question while they work on homework from their statistics class at Chattanooga State.

Andy Berke

David Wright