February 16, 2017

The Daily Times: Why aren't students finishing degrees?

By Amy Beth Miller

Although more Tennessee students are continuing their education after high school, too many still don’t earn a certificate or college degree.

While this region has a high school graduation rate of 91.5 percent, and 58.6 percent of graduates go to college, less than half finish a certificate or degree program, according to Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit education advocacy organization launched last fall.

Statewide, 38.7 percent of adults had earned a certificate or degree by 2015, but the state’s Drive to 55 initiative aims to make that 55 percent by 2025.

“We need all hands on deck to get to this Drive to 55 goal,” Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, said Wednesday during a roundtable discussion his organization hosted at Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley campus.

More than 30 representatives from schools, colleges, businesses and nonprofit groups across 16 counties participated in the discussion.

The Knoxville event was the fourth of nine planned regional roundtables to gather input for a white paper Complete Tennessee plans to issue by May.

Leaky pipeline

Within six years of starting a program, three out of four community college students, half of public university students and a third of the students at the University of Tennessee have not graduated, according to Complete Tennessee.

The 16 counties in the Knoxville region represent more diverse situations than other regions, according to Julie Roberts, director of policy research for Complete Tennessee. “There’s a huge spread across the counties,” she said.

For example, while nearly 70 percent of high school graduates in Knox County continue their education, in Monroe County only 43.1 percent do.

Nearly half of Knox County adults had a certificate or degree in 2015, compared with just 19.1 percent in Union County.

In Blount County, 37.8 percent have a certificate or degree, but an additional 11,580 would need to earn one by 2025 to meet the Drive to 55 goal.

Completing that degree is important to individuals and the state.

An individual who grows up in poverty and does not earn a postsecondary degree is 10 times more likely to remain poor than someone who earns a degree, Lovett said.

Having an educated workforce also is crucial to attracting business to the state, said Randy Boyd, who last month stepped down as Tennessee’s commissioner of economic development but attended Wednesday’s event.

“Sometimes the only thing they want to talk about is the workforce,” Boyd said.

Communicating value

One of the stumbling blocks is that families don’t have a postsecondary education mindset, said Bill Seymour, president of Cleveland State Community College. There’s a culture of, “This just isn’t something we do,” he said.

Families also don’t understand the value and need for postsecondary education, said Kenneth Crockett of the student coaching firm InsideTrack.

The state estimates that reaching the Drive to 55 goal would increase household income by $9.3 billion and state tax revenue by nearly $434 million.

In Blount County, according to the estimates, household income would rise by nearly $147 million and local tax revenue by $4.9 million.

Lack of life skills

Once students arrive on campus, they may face a “hidden curriculum,” because if they are the first generation in their family to attend college they may be unfamiliar with processes and terms, such as the bursar’s office.

Some students lack not only basic academic skills but also basic life skills, such as time management, said Stephanie Welch, interim president of the Great Schools Partnership working with Knox County Schools.

A life issue such as a family illness can derail them, and the cause isn’t always financial, roundtable members said.

As the group looked for solutions, members talked about reaching students beyond the school day. “It’s got to be more than just a 7:30 to 3 solution,” Boyd said. “It’s got to be a whole life solution.” 

Seymour said his college is working on pathways to narrow the overwhelming number of choices students face during college.

Meanwhile, the president of Maryville College said it is working to ensure college students are ready for work after they leave campus.

With the Maryville College Works program, students begin to write a resume and network during their first semester. “They are terrible at networking, and their resume is blank,” said Dr. Tom Bogart, but by realizing that at the beginning, students understand they need to do more to succeed after college.

“College is not a detour from your life; it’s part of your life,” Bogart said.

To ensure that students have the soft skills and professional attitude to succeed in the workplace, Hamblen County Schools has worked with employers to develop a “work ethic diploma,” Dr. Dale Lynch, director of schools, told the group.

The executive director of Project GRAD Knoxville, Ronni Chandler, explained that programs that put high school students on college campuses for events help develop a feeling that they belong in college and can succeed there.

Adding Adults

With Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Reconnect initiative to encourage adults to complete degrees, colleges also are looking at ways to better serve that population.

Two things keep adults from college, Seymour said. “One is money, and one is convenience.”

With Haslam proposing an expansion of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program to pay for adults attending community college, “What are we going to do as a college to make it easy?” Seymour asked.

The president of Pellissippi State Community College agreed. “It’s incumbent on us to create the structure to allow adults to complete degrees,” said Anthony Wise.

One option Cleveland State is examining is an “adult weekend college” program.

Complete Tennessee’s report “Room to Grow: The State of Higher Education in Tennessee” is available on its website, http://completetennessee.org.