By Tom Lee
In 1977, the same year our beloved editor was having life-changing conversations with Gregg Allman in the interest of all that was and could yet be in the South, an older buddy drove me to the dingy quarters of the Knoxville Civic Auditorium to see Randy Newman burn it all down.
Not long before, Newman had released "Good Old Boys," as fiery a torch to the South as anything Sherman lit. For an artist who had made his name on the droll, "Good Old Boys," was uncharacteristically direct, sledgehamering racial bigotry ("Rednecks"), whiskey-soaked self-pity ("Marie"), classism ("Have Pity on the Working Man"), and small-town provincialism ("Birmingham"). The centerpiece of the album, a haunting tryptic on the causes and effects of Huey Long's demagoguery, was a graduate seminar on 20th-century cracker pathos. Small surprise, when Newman invited requests, no one asked for "Rednecks."
I was not yet 16. I didn't get all that, but I got this: When Newman sang about "college men from LSU / Went in dumb, come out dumb, too / Hustlin' 'round Atlanta in their alligator shoes," I didn't want to be one of those guys.
I attended a large public high school in East Tennessee, then my county's newest. One-third of my graduating class enrolled in the University of Tennessee. In those days, these were the UT admission requirements:
(1) Graduate from high school; and (2) Take the ACT.
Like almost everything else, as we will see, higher education is different in the South.
Went in Dumb, Come Out Dumb, Too
From 1870 to 1910, higher education enrollment increased almost six-fold nationally. For reasons you might imagine, not so in the South. The president of the University of Alabama described the post-Civil War state of affairs: "The University buildings are all burned. I do not know that the University of Alabama will be rebuilt — if at all, it will be several years hence."
When Southern universities did rebuild, they became, to borrow an idea, peculiar. They eschewed research for utility — rhetoric for agriculture, philosophy for home economics — and built social cultures around single-sex social fraternities, Christian student societies, and athletics, primarily football. Old ways also persisted. The University of Alabama, rebuilt after all, did not racially integrate until after two men had orbited the earth in a space capsule.
To the rest of the country, it resembled more vo-tech than academia. Southerners knew it for something else: the professionalization of the region's historic social and economic order.
Membership in this order never had been policed by merit. And so, even when the federal government began guaranteeing student loans and mountains of student deferments from the military draft meant college had a lot more appeal for a lot longer, merit was not a factor. Southern campuses swelled (see my high school admission standards, above).
In these days, a Southern state college was not unlike a state highway, there for anyone who happened along. Drop in. Or drop out. No one knew how many of us graduated. Tennessee didn't compile college completion statistics then.
Then, two things happened, causally unrelated but powerfully linked.
First, beginning the year I graduated high school, American middle-class wages stagnated. Social Security Administration data show that while the top 1 percent saw incomes rise 154 percent from 1979 to 2012, average family wages rose only 34 percent. The Economic Policy Institute says this inequality had cost middle-class families $17,000 per year by 2011.
Second, the burden of paying for all that college expansion shifted from the broad base of state taxpayers to the much narrower base of tuition-paying families. A College Board study last year found that public, four-year, tuition, fees, room, and board had quadrupled in real dollars since I was an undergraduate.
In Tennessee, it was much, much worse. When I wrote for the Daily Beacon student newspaper at UT, annual, in-state tuition and fees were $289.
Last year, it was $5,393 — 1766.09 percent more.
To put the corn down where the chickens can get at it: College became essential at the same time it became unaffordable.
Have Pity on the Working Man
Into this conundrum: a Republican Southern governor and a Republican supermajority legislature.
"We know that by 2025, at least half the jobs in this state will require a college degree or certificate," Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said recently. “This is about jobs, it’s about math."
Soft-spoken, deeply religious, and with the personal ease of one well born, Haslam springs from Howard Baker's line of East Tennessee politics. Unquestionably Republican, Haslam's programmatic focus on education and economic matters — to the exclusion of virtually all social issues — bears occasional resemblance to the reformist Southern governors of the 1980s. This quality (some of those reformers were Democrats) has caught the notice of Republican legislators who, almost to a person, are vocally, if not actually, more conservative. Despite statewide wins by wide margins in 2010 and 2014, Haslam has, therefore, always been something of an enigma to his own party.
Early in his administration, Haslam invested significant political capital in K-12 education. He proposed sweeping changes to teacher licensure and accountability, a pilot voucher program for Memphis, and supported legislation that gave the State Board of Education authority to charter schools over the objections of local school boards.
Despite early student test-score gains, teachers and parents revolted. The toughest teacher licensure requirements were rolled back, the voucher program never happened, and the state board has rejected more charter appeals than it has approved.
Haslam did what all successful politicians do. He raised teacher pay, and he pivoted.
"I think we have the opportunity to become a national model in approaching post-secondary education," Haslam said to a group of legislators and college administrators in 2012. "The time is right to take that work to the next level."
To do that, Haslam had to redefine the promise of Tennessee's lottery. Created by a referendum of Tennessee voters in 2002, the lottery was sold on a premise familiar to Southern states — proceeds, after costs and winnings, would fund college scholarships.
Many of us tend to think of college as a four-year (or, ahem, more) matter. But as Tennessee witnessed a post-recession manufacturing renaissance, employers began to cry out for a skilled workforce that did not exist. So, in 2014, Haslam proposed to fund an endowment, called the Tennessee Promise, built from lottery proceeds to ensure any graduating high school senior could attend five semesters of community college tuition-free.
The Promise had an immediate impact. Enrollment in community colleges rose 7 percent in one year. State scholarship dollars flowing into two-year programs rose almost 50 percent. Barack Obama came to East Tennessee to praise the Tennessee Promise as a national model.
This year, Haslam came back with the Tennessee Reconnect Act, an $11 million, last-dollar scholarship, also funded by lottery proceeds, for adults to go back to community college tuition-free.
"This proposal will make Tennessee the first state, the first state in the nation, to offer all adults community college, tuition-free," Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, himself an adult degree-earner, told his colleagues just before the bill passed the Tennessee House, 87-6.
Donald Trump has not yet come to town.
How this happened in the legislature named America's most conservative by the American Conservative Union may seem a mystery. It is not. One begins with the governor's investment and bully pulpit. That would be enough on some issues, but not in these times with programs costing upwards of $30 million annually.
The magic wand was the use of lottery proceeds, which voters made unavailable for nearly any purpose but higher education. So, Promise and Reconnect may be expensive, but they didn't require politically unpopular tax increases or sacrifice of other popular programs. In the legislative sense, they were free.
There is, however, no free. Only pay or pay not.
Tenessee's lottery is projected over the next five years to return about $350 million annually for scholarships. The first year of the Promise, Tennessee spent $324 million on scholarships. Add Reconnect's projected $11 million price tag and it's not hard to imagine challenges — a downturn in ticket sales, a sudden enthusiasm for college — to the lottery's ability to fund the state's commitments.
Legislators still have priorities of their own. Any future financial concerns likely would produce a quick rollback, especially with Gov. Haslam leaving office in 18 months. The chief architect of the Promise, Knoxville businessman (and former Haslam cabinet member) Randy Boyd, is now a candidate for governor. Just the fact of his candidacy invites others to imagine alternatives.
But there should be questions. After all, what Tennessee is trying to do is nothing less than change a state's social, educational, and economic culture 150 years into the making. So, if Tennesseans want to be educated, and if the state keeps its commitments, and if the jobs are still there, and if poor Tennesseans keep buying lottery tickets, and if the right legislators accede to the right leadership positions, and if the right governor is elected, and if ...
The odds on that bet are immeasurable. The price paying it out, however, is not.
I remember the Randy Newman song we did clamor for at that Knoxville concert 40 years ago. It's called "Baltimore." It didn't offend our Southern sensibilities, and it went like this:
Hard times in the city / In a hard town by the sea / Ain’t nowhere to run to / There ain’t nothin’ here for free
Not here, neither.