"15 to Finish" Bill Fails in Tennessee

May 22, 2018

By Jack Porter, Advocacy Associate 

Earlier this year, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam delivered his final State of the State address in Nashville and announced a new provision for the Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to have 55 percent of adults there obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025. After touting national attention the Volunteer State received for its Tennessee Promise program that began in 2015-16, Haslam proposed increasing the minimum workload for recipients of promise and HOPE scholarships to 30 credit hours per academic year.

In presenting “Complete to Compete,” Haslam declared that the General Assembly would immediately take up a legislative effort – which would eventually fall nine votes short – to implement a long-debated completion incentive generally referred to as “15 to Finish.”

The Complete College Tennessee Act would have reduced state aid awards by $250 per semester for Tennessee Promise and HOPE Scholarship recipients receiving the maximum award and taking fewer than 30 credits per academic year. In another example of NCAN members engaging in state policy, the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN) served as a resource for policymakers weighing the implications of a 15 to Finish measure for traditionally underserved students.

TCASN urged lawmakers to first gain a strong understanding of how this policy would impact the students they serve. To do so, the network directed legislators to county profiles from another NCAN member – the Tennessee Higher Education Commission – which detail how many students from each county receive TN Education Lottery scholarships. TCASN also shared its own resources on non-academic issues that affect college completion, such as summer melt, transportation, access to quality student supports, and food insecurity.

Moreover, TCASN urged legislators to further scrutinize the bill by probing the hard, fundamental questions surrounding the prospective law, such as, “Is reducing financial aid the best incentive to increase higher course loads?” (In 2016, for example, the Obama Administration proposed awarding a $300 bonus to Pell Grant recipients who complete 30 credits per year, a measure that is included in House Republicans’ Higher Education Act reauthorization bill.)

TCASN staff say their state is fortunate to have leaders who are focused on increasing degree attainment.

“The Drive to 55 is a bold goal to which TCASN is committed,” Executive Director Bob Obrohta said. “To get there, we must ensure we are creating policies that help all students – especially first-generation, low-income students – succeed.”

Critics of 15 to Finish worry that extra coursework will overburden nontraditional students who are more likely to have dependents or may be working full-time. Additionally, opponents of models such as Complete to Compete point to the dent they would make in aid packages for those attending institutions that charge tuition by credit hour instead of charging a flat rate for students enrolled in 12-18 credits, a concept known as “banded tuition.”

Take, for example, the University of Memphis, where it is $192 more expensive to enroll in 15 credits than 12. If a student currently taking 24 credits per year were forced to take an additional six credits to meet new eligibility criteria, she would incur another $384 in tuition charges. Thus, Memphis students would face an undesirable dilemma: take more credits and pay a higher tuition bill, or maintain their current course load and pay a $500 penalty for not reaching the annual 30-credit-hour minimum.

15 to Finish proponents, meanwhile, cite positive outcomes for traditional students, who may be more able to complete 30 credits per academic year and avoid unnecessary costs that would otherwise accrue if they were not on pace to accumulate 120 credits in four years.

“The research is clear: Taking the credits needed to graduate on time results in better academic performance, higher retention rates, and the increased likelihood of completion,” Haslam said in his address. He said Complete to Compete would ensure that students “start strong, receive support to stay on track, and make it to graduation day.”

While the Republican bill also included additional funding for student supports, the measure failed by a vote of 41-46. Rep. Bill Beck, a Democrat from Nashville, voiced concerns that the bill “penalizes the working student.”

Those on both sides of the issue will soon have data on hand to better understand the implications of 15 to Finish on postsecondary completion, as Indiana lawmakers successfully implemented a similar provision in the state’s financial aid system in 2013. An initial analysis shows the policy has led to an increased likelihood of students completing 30 credits per year, though this proved to be largely contingent upon whether the institution uses banded tuition or charges tuition by credit hour.

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