This post is the second of two focused on recent legislation affecting education policy in Tennessee. First, we looked at the effects to K-12 education. In part two, we examine the effects on postsecondary education.

During the 2020 legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly considered several legislative items designed to help ensure that students and families can more readily apply for college and receive financial aid.

However, the biggest issue impacting higher education policy this year could not have been anticipated. One by one, institutions of higher education across the country and Tennessee began to shut down and move to virtual classes in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

State leaders took emergency action to protect the health and safety of Tennesseans, and the General Assembly worked on an expedited timeline to pass an amended budget and some critical pieces of legislation. The short-term solutions to the pandemic have the potential for long-term impact on innovation. Here’s a look at how higher education will be impacted in the short-term.

Senate Bill 1973 (House Bill 2472)

This legislation provides the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation with temporary authority to adjust requirements for Tennessee postsecondary financial aid programs, including Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Reconnect, the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, and dual enrollment grant, among others. Important components of the legislation include:

  • Any emergency change must be for a specific period of time
  • Any temporary policy change must be reported to the state legislature
  • The Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation is authorized to make emergency rules to:
    • Suspend, modify, or waive deadlines to apply for certain state scholarships
    • Modify nonacademic eligibility criteria, such as canceling required meetings and adjusting community service hour requirements for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship
  • Students will retain access to critical financial aid dollars throughout the pandemic without penalty

Fiscal Year 2020-2021 Budget

In February 2020, Governor Bill Lee introduced an initial budget proposal that increased public education funding by more than $600 million. During each legislative session, the General Assembly debates an amended budget that includes the governor’s budgetary proposals and other legislative priorities. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the proposed budget plan was significantly revised in anticipation of the economic impact of the pandemic and contained the following key takeaways for postsecondary education:

  • Maintaining the recommended funding in growth for Tennessee’s outcomes-based funding formula at $38 million, which rewards public colleges and universities for student progression and completion
  • Retaining allocations for one-time initiatives proposed in the original budget, including:
    • $5 million to support development of an accelerated academic program for medical students to serve in rural communities
    • $2 million for statewide campus security updates across public colleges and universities
    • $1 million to support mechatronics program development across community and technical colleges
    • $1 million to support veteran students in transitioning from the military into higher education through Veteran Reconnect
  • Deleting items from the original budget proposal relative to financial aid, capital projects, competency-based education, and apprenticeship programs

Potential For Postsecondary Innovation

Although COVID-19 has upended learning delivery systems, institutions of higher education and state leaders have taken critical steps to meet the needs of students during this unprecedented time. Many institutions are enacting policies that provide flexibility to students. These include:

  • A satisfactory or no-credit grading option for courses
  • Deadline extensions to drop courses
  • Waivers for exit exams to receive degrees
  • Providing resources and services to students facing hardship

State and policy leaders are also providing up-to-date information related to COVID-19 campus and financial aid information, contacting and working with high school students noted for verification based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and relaying guidance from the US Department of Education and Centers for Disease Control.

Higher education is uniquely equipped to respond to the evolving and emerging needs of the crisis through manufacturing (to mitigate the risk of medical supply shortages) and research (to make key scientific and medical advances). Our postsecondary institutions also offer increased opportunities for economic prosperity, social well-being, and civic engagement.

We are grateful to state and higher education leaders, policymakers, and education stakeholders who are responding to the public health crisis and innovating to better serve citizens, students, and families both now and in the future.

Samantha Gutter serves as SCORE’s senior director of strategic initiatives. Bryce Warden is SCORE’s senior postsecondary policy analyst.