February 21, 2017

The Daily Times: Complete Tennessee takes dead aim at growing higher ed

By Bob Norris

Listen, can you hear it? Complete Tennessee is counting on it. Actually, first this new nonprofit education advocacy organization is doing the listening. Then Tennesseans committed to continued improvement of the state’s higher education systems will get their chance to listen — and to read.
Launched in September, Complete Tennessee is focused on increasing postsecondary access and completion in the state.

The new group plans on issuing a white paper in May that will pull together what is being learned while conducting a series of nine-roundtable discussions during a statewide “listening tour.” The fourth session was held Wednesday at the Pellissippi State Community College Hardin Valley campus in Knoxville.

The meeting drew more than 30 representatives from schools, colleges and nonprofit groups from a 16-county region. Seven college presidents attended.

This is no aberration. There’s a vibe about education in the state.
Tennessee’s success in improving public education has become a beacon for other states.

Examples: Tennessee has had the largest improvement in fourth- and eight-grade reading and math scores of any state in the country since 2011. High school graduation rates have grown to almost 90 percent. In the fall of 2015, the college-going rate rose to 62.5 percent, a 4.6 percentage point increase that topped the previous six years combined.

But there’s a long way to go, and it has to be acknowledged that Tennessee started near the back of the pack compared to other, more affluent states. Now that Tennessee’s growing economy is drawing envious attention too, it’s time to redouble efforts to keep the state on an upward trajectory.

That means putting even more emphasis on shoring up the basics. Spell that e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n. Back to the future, if you will.

With all the recent good news on education, what’s with this renewed push? Let’s check more examples. While almost half the adults in Knox County had a degree or certificate beyond high school in 2015, only 19.1 percent did in Union County.

You’re wondering about Blount County. That topped out at 37.8 percent. If the county is to reach the state’s Drive to 55 goal, with 55 percent of residents holding parchment beyond K-12 in 2025, some 11,580 local adults will have to acquire that higher degree or certificate. That’s a lot of folks.

Here are the gut-check facts:

  • Three out of four community college students in Tennessee do not complete a degree. In fact, there is not a single community college in Tennessee that graduates more than 50 percent of its first-time freshmen students within a six-year period.
  • Despite an overall 16 percentage point decline in the number of postsecondary students requiring remediation over the past four years, more than half of Tennessee community college students still require remediation.
  • Half of public university students and a third of University of Tennessee students do not graduate within a six-year period.
  • Even “college ready” students with ACT scores between 24 and 28 have less than a 50 percent graduation rate from Tennessee community colleges and just a 60 percent graduation rate from public universities.
  • Only one of 20 African-American students enrolled in community college in Tennessee attains a degree within three years.

So yes, we can do better than the current state of higher education in Tennessee.

There’s plenty of room to grow.