Gov. Bill Haslam spent the summer making it a priority to study the state’s higher education system, but he said he needs to do more homework before coming up with solid ways to reform or refine it.
The governor said so far he and his administration “haven’t decided what we’re going to do” to produce more students to fill the needs of the state’s businesses, increase graduation rates and keep down the cost of tuition.
“We’re still in the middle of a lot of information gathering and trying to come to a lot better decision about what ‘next’ looks like for us,” Haslam told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
For now, he said his office will likely pitch to the legislature next year some smaller tweaks such as making it easier to set up scholarship programs, but will avoid large-scale governance changes to the higher education system.
“We’re looking at everything from broadening the scholarship program we have now — Tennessee Achieves, which helps people go to community colleges free — to can we make better use of an online education program that might work for some people, to continuing what Tennessee started with the Complete College Act,” Haslam said.
Haslam said he “honestly doesn’t know yet” whether major changes would come to the higher education system during his first four-year term.
Leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, who is flirting with the idea of running for governor , said he’s relieved the governor is taking this issue slowly.
“I would think that would be a good thing, that we don’t fool around with changing a bunch of hierarchies,” said Fitzhugh. “I think that’s wise not to sort of move the deck chairs around but concentrate on more substantive things.”
Both Fitzhugh and Haslam said they are concerned about the long-term increasing cost of higher education tuition — costs that are in part dependent on the state’s revenue and increasing costs in other programs like TennCare.
As next year’s legislative session approaches, Haslam said he is still on the fence on whether to lead the charge on instituting a school voucher program for students to attend private schools with taxpayer dollars. He said he’d decide after the first of the year whether his administration will pitch a bill to the legislature or if he will let the individual lawmakers take the lead.