March 30, 2017

Chattanooga Times Free Press: What Could Reverse Tennessee's Dismal College Dropout Rate?

By Steve Johnson

Tennessee has done a good job in helping high school graduates go to college, but a high percentage of students drop out of their programs before obtaining a degree, local business, education and government leaders were told Wednesday.

"Three out of four students in community colleges will not graduate on time, and with our universities, about half will do so," Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, told the group in a meeting at Chattanooga State Community College. "More than half of all students are not coming out from high school prepared. And we are seeing equity gaps based on color — only 5 percent of African-American students will finish community college with a degree in three years."

A Tennessean with only a high school diploma earns an average salary of $26,000, compared to $45,000 for someone with a college degree and $57,000 if they have a graduate degree, according to a report issued by Complete Tennessee in December.

The state of Tennessee has launched a "Drive to 55" program to insure that 55 percent of all Tennesseans have a college degree by 2025 (compared to a current 38 percent). The 55 percent figure was chosen because economists estimate that 55 percent of all jobs will require a college degree by 2025. State officials say that if the goal is reached, the higher salaries for Tennesseans would boost local tax revenues by $700 million annually.

Tennessee is ahead of most other states in that all high school graduates are guaranteed two years of free education at a community college under the Tennessee Promise legislation passed in 2014.

But while that has helped guarantee that finances don't prevent a high school graduate from attending college, it has not guaranteed that they will complete their degree.

Among the reasons for dropping out mentioned by those attending Wednesday's meeting were poor preparation for college and a willingness to take a low-skills job right after graduation instead of working toward a better-paying job down the road.

According to the Complete Tennessee report, "most students who graduate from Tennessee high schools are still in need of remediation and lack critical college-readiness skills The vast majority of Tennessee students fall below the scores that ACT [college entrance exam] declares 'college ready." As a result, many of them are not able to complete college-level work.

The prospect of a job right now is often more attractive than a possible position after graduation, said Chattanooga State University Interim President Debbie Adams, who told of her conversation with a student who had been pursuing a degree in engineering technology who instead decided to take a job as an electrician's apprentice so he would have money to buy a car.

Some employers seeking entry-level workers are also now willing to hire students before they have a degree. "They are snapping them up before they get the degree," said Cleveland-Bradley County Chamber of Commerce President Gary Farlow. "If they get far enough in a program, they say 'We'll train you ourselves.'" But taking that job now instead of completing a degree program may cost the student in earnings later on in his or her career.

Complete Tennessee is a non-profit organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The group is organizing meetings among business, education and government leaders to discuss ways to get more Tennessee students to finish their degree programs.