February 2, 2017

Columbia Daily Herald: Complete Tennessee hosts education summit

By Mike Christen

Southern Middle Tennessee's leaders in education, business and local government gathered at Northfield Workforce Development and Conference Center this week.

They participated in a symposium, setting the base for a mission to better connect Tennesseans to secondary education, no matter what their age.

The special event was held by Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing post-secondary access and completion in across the state through innovation, engagement, leadership, advocacy and accountability.

One of the organization's major goals is to encourage Gov. Bill Haslam's Drive to 55, setting the initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.
Monday, during his State of the State address, Haslam proposed to make Tennessee the first state in the union to offer a tuition-free community college education to all adults with no post-secondary education.

"We just want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make more Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect students complete their degree," Complete Tennessee Director of Engagement & Advocacy Kaci Murley told those in attendance at the summit Wednesday.

"We are the first state in the country to allow every student to go to some form of postsecondary education, and that is huge. It is important for us to remind ourselves that didn't happen overnight. With organizations like the Ayers Foundation, Tennessee Achieves, the 10,000 mentors running around the state and the past two governors, all of that working together is what got us here today."

The organization, which operates independently from the state, launched in September 2016 with a report highlighting the statistic that three out of every four community college students in the state do not complete their degree.

Entitled 'Room to Grow,' the investigation, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, found that half of all Tennessee public university students and a third of all University of Tennessee students do not complete their studies.

The organization's research also found that only one in 20 black students enrolled in community college will attain a degree within three years and that despite a 16 percent decline in the number of postsecondary students requiring remediation, more than half of the state's students still have a need for the additional review.

"We want to do everything we can to see that more than three out of four of those students graduate, " Murley said. "We want to create an awareness around where we are headed, and this tour is about taking the organization and its message on the road."

The session was one of nine engagements the organization is hosting across the state to create a unified understanding of the ways communities are encouraging their residents to enroll in and complete their secondary education.

"We want to increase local ownership of the Drive to 55 and what higher education looks like in different communities, but we want to bring people to the table that have not traditionally discussed higher education," Murley said.

At the end of the tour this spring, Complete Tennessee will release a baseline report of the state as a whole, followed by the release of specific local strategies for nine regions visited.

Complete Tennessee Executive Director Kenyatta Lovette said the baseline report is planned to be released in May.

Lovett said the organization is focused on improving the state's completion rates and looking beyond the classroom, investigating mass transit, mentorships and other out-of-school factors.

"We know it is going to take communities all over the state to really engage, so we can sustain this beyond government administrations," Lovett said. "It's not just the teachers alone who are going to make this change. We know that every part of the state is different, and we want to highlight how regions are looking at academic completion and show them the things we want them to champion."

Those in attendance included Maury County Mayor Charlie Norman, Maury County Assistant Director of Schools Scott Gaines, Jan McKeel of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance and a variety of other local government officials and leaders of education from the greater Southern Middle Tennessee region, including top administrators at Martin Methodist College.

Murley said those present at the summit represented the pipeline that will continue to increase the number of Tennesseans, both young and old, pursuing degrees in higher education.

"Postsecondary schools are just so important," Norman said."The big difference between economics in communities is determined by the more college graduates that you have."
He concentrated on the need for local entities to work together and for an example to be set for the younger generations that now have the benefit of the Tennessee Promise scholarship.
"The buy-in from our community, business and industry is just making our community move forward," Norman said. "If a kid looks at his parents who are going back and getting a college education, I think that is the way we can set an example for those coming up."

Lawrence County Mayor T.R. Lawrence said the county has a plan for economic growth founded on setting education as a top priority for the county with training geared toward the industries available in the county.

"We have to understand what is available to us, and the training needs to be geared toward that," Williams said. "I think there is a whole generation of kids that feel upset, and they are turning to drugs and ending up in jail."

The county just approved $1.5 million to go to the foundation of a new college.

"Other states are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how Tennessee has done this," Murley said.

The exact impact the Tennessee Promise scholarship has on the state's economy will take time to measure.With the program's first students in their final semester of community college, the graduation numbers for students in the program remain speculative.

Complete Tennessee’s study does highlight that 22 percent of all Tennessee postsecondary students attend community colleges.

"What we are trying to do is keep that momentum going," Murley said. "We want to make sure three, six years from now, those students finish school, so that we can continue moving forward, creating local ownership and spreading resources for the state's students."