March 9, 2017

Citizen Tribune: Complete Tennessee puts focus on postsecondary success

By Jonathan Nash

In accordance with Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, Tennessee’s goal is to have 55 percent of its population possess a college degree by the year 2025.

Programs such as Tennessee Promise, and most recently Tennessee Reconnect, have eliminated financial barriers that prevent many from attending college; however, one issue remains a major thorn in Haslam’s vision.

A recently-formed initiative called Complete Tennessee has shined a spotlight on the postsecondary graduation rate across state colleges, universities and community colleges.

The initiative refers to the states current graduation rates as “unacceptably low,” with only 15 percent of enrolled community college students in Tennessee receiving a diploma and 50.1 percent at the public college and university level.

These statistics rank Tennessee 38th in the nation in for public university graduation rates and 40th in the nation for community college graduation rate, which is not that far out of line with other education rankings by the state.

In order to reach Haslam’s goal by 2025, significant improvements need to be made on multiple levels. Complete Tennessee executive director Kenyatta Lovett believes these changes need to begin at the community level, and has recently been touring the state’s economic districts to hear feedback from leaders and educators throughout the state.

By the Numbers

Despite the college-going rate in Tennessee growing at an unprecedented rate, college completion percentages in the state continue to fall significantly below the nations average.

Statistics reported by Complete Tennessee include:

  • Roughly 3 out of 4 community college students in Tennessee do not complete a degree program
  • Half of public university students and one-third of students at UT do not graduate within a six-year period
  • Only 1 in 20 African American students enrolled in community college in the state attain a degree within three years.

Currently, only 38 percent of adults in Tennessee have some form of post-secondary degree or certificate. Complete Tennessee emphasizes this affects the state’s economy and well-being of its citizens.

One aspect of this problem can be traced back to how high schools in the state make sure students are college ready.

Tennessee’s average ACT score for public schools students is a 19.4, below the national average of 21. Students scoring a 21 or above are considered to be college ready. The average ACT score for students entering community college in the state is an 18.8, lower than the state average.

Lovett believes this fact, among many other contributors, is limiting the growth of its graduation rate.

One area of focus Complete Tennessee leaders have noticed is degree completion appears to be directly tied to family income.

Lovett believes that while bridge programs exist for first generation students of low-income families, more needs to be done to assure they have a successful transition into college and mentorship throughout their college career.

Making a change

Lovett still believes Tennessee’s Drive to 55 goal can be a reality; however, he said it will take a complete effort from all aspects of a community, not just places of education.

“We’re starting to get some traction,” Lovett said. “We want the conversation to really change around completion. We want that conversation to expand to more Tennesseans for them to realize that they are a part of the completion agenda as well.”

He said within area communities, it is necessary for business and industry leaders, city and county officials and local non-profits to push the agenda into the public and serve as a support system for students attempting college at any age.

“Our goal at the end of the day is that we want to be able to help promote that culture of change that is needed as a long-term solution for the state,” Lovett said.

Lovett said making sure communities and its leaders are aware of the state’s shortcoming is the first step to getting graduation rates on track.

“Part of our role is to make sure communities are aware of the performance of the institutions and get a gauge of what completion actually looks like instead of what we perceive it to be,” he said. “Many people we meet with think 80 or 90 percent is the standard for completion across the board. Then when they see the actual numbers, they realize there is room to grow. Without highlighting these issues, we would just assume all is well.”

Lovett and his team with Complete Tennessee have been traveling across the state to hear feedback from community leaders in business, education and politics to analyze the needs that need to be addressed. They have met with six of the nine economic districts in the state, with the most recent roundtable meeting being held in Greeneville for the Northeast Tennessee district.

Northeast Tennessee counties meet in Greeneville

Complete Tennessee held its sixth roundtable meeting for the Northeast economic district of Tennessee Wednesday afternoon inside the General Morgan Inn in Greeneville.

Lovett and his team met with members of the Niswonger Foundation, area school systems, presidents and deans of area colleges and universities, county and city officials and members of non-profit organizations.

Those in attendance received an overview of the Complete Tennessee initiative from former Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd. Boyd recently stepped down from his position and announced his intention to enter the 2018 gubernatorial race on Monday.

Boyd said the Drive to 55 initiative must be achieved at the state level in the time frame established.

“The workforce is going to require that by the year 2025,” he said. “For every percentage that we fall short, that will either be a percentage that is unemployed or underemployed. This is a critical mission for our state.”

Boyd noted the percentage of Tennesseans with degrees has increased from 32 percent to 39 percent in the past three years, indicating progress.

“We still have 16 percent left to go,” he said. “If we continue on our current trajectory, even with all of the great new ideas we have like Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, we are going to fall short. We are going to have to come up with some bold new ideas to get there.

“We’re sending so many kids on to school and they’re failing,” he continued. “We’ve got to figure out why they’re failing and how to turn it around, and that is what this about.

“We believe that completion will take all of us here to make that work,” Lovett said. “It’s not just the institutions, but all that support the work that institutions do in higher education.”

Present at the Wednesday meeting from Hamblen County were Tish Jones, executive director of HC*EXCELL and a steering member for Complete Tennessee; Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney; KC Alvarado with Hamblen County Schools; and Matthew Hunter, Dean of Distance Education at Walters State Community College.

Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain attended a prior Complete Tennessee meeting held in Knoxville.

During the open forum portion of the meeting, Chesney and Alvarado shared the work Hamblen County Schools is doing with its Workforce Development and Education Partnership and the Work Ethic Diploma.

Chesney encouraged an emphasis needs to be placed on soft skill training at the middle and high school level to promote college and career success.

Alvarado said 140 students graduated last year with the Work Ethic Diploma distinction, which provides an incentive for students to graduate high school and enter the next phase of their lives.

Ideas that were discussed of how to improve the post-secondary graduation issue included an increase of public transportation to and from colleges, have advisors within schools for all age groups and closing the geographical distance between higher education options to benefit all members of a region.

Members of the Kingsport community suggested similar options as the Kingsport Academic Village. This higher education complex is in a central location for many citizens and offers benefits for adult students, such as a day care, food options, bus hub and GED center.

One concern brought up was how the state can recruit companies to open in Tennessee if the graduation rates are less than desirable.

“We have to take a chance on education first and then hope that the jobs come,” Boyd said. “The companies aren’t going to come with hope that you’ll train the workers sometime in the future. You have to train the workers first.”

Boyd suggested more technical colleges and increased access to all Tennesseans could aid in helping the completion issue.

Hamblen County – A Pilot Community

A full report of its findings will be released in May, along with specific strategic plans for each economic district in the state.

Lovett said Complete Tennessee is looking into making Hamblen County a pilot community for its initiative once it completes its tour of the state, saying Hamblen County can serve as a positive example across the state and can serve as a focused group to analyze progress.

Currently, Hamblen County has a college-going rate of 62.6 percent, with only 27.2 percent of its population having a degree or certificate.

The report stated if Hamblen County can raise its post-secondary graduation rates to 47.4 percent by 2025, there would be an estimated local tax revenue increase of $2.3 million.

Community leaders agree with the mission of Complete Tennessee and are excited for the opportunity to further get behind the state’s education goals.

“We need to do everything we can to encourage people to finish their degree,” Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain said. “We need to continue to eliminate barriers all all of our students. Hamblen County is willing to partner with all area schools to help get the word out to as many people as possible.”

Brittain said increasing economic development is critical to the area’s success.

“It takes all types of jobs to make successful businesses and successful communities,” he said.

Morristown Mayor Gary Chesney also strongly advocates the work being done by Complete Tennessee.

“With all of the work and effort being done in Morristown and Hamblen County, our area is a perfect location to springboard a pilot program,” he said. “This is absolutely a very good thing for Morristown and the state.”

Chesney said the pending expansion of Morristown’s TCAT center will further aid in helping Complete Tennessee and Drive to 55 complete its goals.

“We are optimistic the Morristown TCAT center will be a premiere center in the state,” he said. “With all of the factors that our area offers, plus the fact we have so many students graduating today with college credit, this initiative is obtainable.”

Walters State Community College president Dr. Tony Miksa said Complete Tennessee’s initiative is essential for keeping the state on the right path.

“Complete Tennessee will help each area of the state in meeting unique demands, while also providing a way to share what works best with others,” Miksa said. “Tennessee has made great improvements in educational attainment in the past few years. The Complete Tennessee Listening Tour is a great way to make sure everyone involved knows the importance of the Complete Tennessee initiative.”