Flawed Tennessee Law Could Have Disastrous Implications

To the Editor:

I appreciate your publishing “With State Support Now Tied to Completion, Tennessee Colleges Must Refocus” (The Chronicle, October 1), about the 2010 Tennessee law that aims to improve the state’s college-graduation rates. There is no doubt that the state’s low graduation rates must be examined and addressed. As the article states, U.S. Census data revealed that the percentage of Tennesseans 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree is well below the national average. While I admire the state legislature’s determination to address this serious problem, I was disheartened after reading your account of the law’s implementation. Solely basing an institution’s funding on graduation rates and credit completions displays an over-generalized and limited understanding of a complex problem. In fact, I would argue that the way in which the law is being implemented may actually make a bad situation even worse.

The Complete College Act fails to adequately recognize the fundamental differences between community colleges and public four-year institutions, in terms of their institutional goals and the students they serve. Community colleges serve a student population with very specific needs. Unlike traditional four-year students, many community-college students are unable to attend school full time due to financial constraints, work, or family responsibilities. Additionally, some community-college students are seeking job training or personal enrichment rather than an associate’s degree. Yet the law fails to acknowledge services rendered to part-time students, and instead makes funding contingent upon the performance of students taking 12 units or more. As public institutions, community colleges should be accountable to taxpayers. However, the current system is not a fair assessment of a community college’s performance or service to its community.

The law could also have disastrous implications for student-learning outcomes. The Complete College Act equates graduation rates to student and institutional success. While I agree that the ability to graduate students is an important goal of every higher-education institution, I would argue that the institution’s role is also to foster student learning. Frankly, I do not believe that graduation rates are necessarily indicative of learning outcomes. Completion and graduation are certainly part of the equation, but it is dangerous to judge our institutions by these factors alone. If institutions are judged not by how much their students learn, but rather only by whether or not their students complete a course, we are encouraging institutions to lower their academic standards in order to ensure that they receive funding for the next school year.

Finally, it is counterintuitive to deny funding to schools that are underperforming. If a school is lacking the resources that it needs to graduate its students, denying funding will only serve to exacerbate the problem. An underperforming school will be hard pressed to maintain the same academic standards with less funding, let alone to improve its services to the point that it can once again receive adequate state funding. If this law is not modified or at least implemented differently, the gap between Tennessee’s successful, well-funded schools and less-successful, poorly funded schools will continue to widen each year.  The result of this inequality will only serve to diminish graduation rates further, as poorly funded schools will certainly not produce more college graduates. I believe that the Complete College Act, while well-intentioned, is extremely flawed. There must be a more comprehensive method for holding institutions accountable and promoting student success, one that attempts to understand the complex needs and goals of the students that institutions of higher education are attempting to serve.

Mary Fischer
Los Angeles

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