April 2, 2019
By Dr. Shanna Jackson
America’s community colleges serve as entry points to opportunity for millions of students.
Regardless of an applicant’s background or circumstance, these institutions provide programs of study that prepare students with valuable credentials to secure living-wage jobs or with the credits necessary to pursue further study at bachelor’s degree-granting institutions.
As president of Nashville State Community College, I am committed to the vital role community colleges play in Tennessee’s higher education system. I believe we exist to serve not just the current but the emerging needs of our workforce. Through the Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect programs, the state has recognized that community and technical colleges are critical pathways toward increasing the number of Tennesseans with a credential beyond a high school diploma.
However, increasing access to postsecondary education is not enough. Completion is the goal. Yet far too many of our students arrive on campus only to find their institutions are unprepared to support their success.
Nashville State serves a challenging population. Census data show 29 percent of Nashville’s children live in poverty. Metro Nashville Public Schools have a high school graduation rate of 80 percent, yet only 61 percent of those graduates go directly to college. According to the ACT college entrance exam, only 24 percent are ready for college-level work.
Although Nashville’s college attainment rate has increased in recent years, rising to 47.6 percent in 2017, the percentage of good-paying jobs that will require at least a technical certificate or associate’s degree is also growing – and at a quicker pace than our attainment rate. It is concerning to know that a significant number of people who live in Nashville will not have the education and training necessary to fill many of the new jobs being added to our economy.
At Nashville State, a significant number of our first-time enrolled students drop out before returning for their second year. We know we can and must do better for the sake of our students, our community and our economy. One thing I know is we cannot do this alone.
We are thankful for the support of many partners such as Complete Tennessee and others who are helping the college identify why students drop out of college. One significant outcome of this work is Mayor David Briley’s proposed Nashville GRAD program. Nashville GRAD will not only provide the financial support beyond Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect to cover expenses such as textbooks, transportation and certification exams for Nashville State and the college of applied technology in Nashville, but equally as important, is providing the resources for the college to pilot a new holistic approach to student support.
At the very heart of it all is my desire to change the narrative around students being “college-ready” to one where our colleges are ready to serve the students we receive. My dream is to find the resources that equip us to design a holistic support system to meet the individual needs of all students. As the data continue to show our students have a diverse range of challenges and many do not have the resources or support to complete college.
In Complete Tennessee’s latest State of Higher Education report, the nonprofit rightly calls for a deeper commitment to addressing the state’s persistent equity gaps. According to the report, “Without an aggressive, comprehensive approach to increase graduation rates for all students while simultaneously narrowing graduation rate disparities for historically underserved populations, higher education attainment rates will continue to have a strong relationship to income and race and run the risk of perpetuating cycles of poverty.” This kind of approach involves financial support, but it also requires institutions provide the highest level of service to each student, ranging from course advising and mentoring to creating welcoming campus cultures where every student knows they belong.
By being more student-ready, our colleges can better meet the mission to empower people for careers and community involvement that makes life better for everyone.
Dr. Shanna Jackson is the fifth president of Nashville State Community College. She previously served in leadership roles at Columbia State Community College and Volunteer State Community College.