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Free-tuition plan may impact public universities, MTSU president says

Middle Tennessee State University

Middle Tennessee State University

Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to make community and technical colleges free could be a double-edged sword for public universities such as Middle Tennessee State University, its president said Monday.

The program, called Tennessee Promise, would use money from the state lottery to pay for two years of community college. To help fund it, Hope lottery scholarships for freshmen and sophomores at Tennessee’s four-year universities would drop to $3,000 from the current level of $4,000.

For many students, that $1,000 difference could determine whether they attend a public university, MTSU President Sidney McPhee said.

McPhee expressed his concern about the “unintended consequence” of the program, although he has voiced support for providing greater access to higher education.

“For a school that has a huge endowment that can make up the difference, that may not be a problem,” McPhee told members of the editorial board at The Tennessean. “But for a school where $200 or $300 can make a difference in terms of whether a student will come or stay, certainly $1,000 could be of impact.”

Public universities that have attracted many low-income and nontraditional students may struggle, he said, pointing out that at MTSU, 70 percent are first-generation college students and the median family income is around $60,000 a year.

Efforts such as the Quest for StudentSuccess program at MTSU are intended to improve retention and graduation rates and aim to help students reach their full potential despite setbacks.

“What we need to do is find ways to take away those things that extend (students’) time unnecessarily, and secondly, provide additional support,” McPhee said.

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