(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland said Wednesday that Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise will likely mean dramatic changes for the makeup of the state’s college students, and said ETSU will have to do a better job of showing the value of a four-year degree in order to meet its enrollment goals.
Haslam unveiled his ambitious higher-education access program, which he called the Tennessee Promise, during his State of the State Address Monday night.
The promise, to ensure two free years of tuition and fees for graduating high school seniors at the state’s community colleges, is a key component of the governor’s “Drive to 55,” an initiative aiming to help 55 percent of Tennessee residents earn a post-secondary degree by 2025.
Haslam said the guaranteed education opportunities would give a leg up for those who normally wouldn’t be able to afford college and provide the state’s employers with an appropriately trained workforce to meet their hiring needs.
Noland said he views the 494,000 new students in higher-education sought by the Drive to 55 as another source from which two- and four-year schools in the state can draw enrollees, and said he didn’t believe the Tennessee Promise was intended to shift current student demographics to community colleges.
“This is another venue to bring individuals to post-secondary education,” he said. “I think it has the potential to broaden college access, and I think we’re fortunate that we have a governor who understands the importance of higher education, because in a lot of states that isn’t the case.”
After a peak of 15,532 students in fall 2011, ETSU’s enrollment declined by 3.7 percent over the next two years, falling to 14,957 by the start of the 2013 academic year.
In an August speech to the university’s teachers, Noland said the decline of 447 enrolled students from the previous year drained $2 million from the school’s budget, necessitating a soft hiring freeze and a 1.5 percent across-the-board budget reduction.
Noland said the drop in enrollment was linked to fewer students graduating from high school caused by lower birth rates.
The governor’s initiative will likely bring a more diverse student population with an increasing proportion of Hispanic enrollees and first-generation college students, he said.
“I think it has the potential to bring more transfer students,” the president said. “We’re going to have to work harder for first-time freshmen, and we’re going to have to do a better job of demonstrating the significant positive return on investment of an ETSU degree.”