July 04, 2017

The Columbia Daily Herald: Access to education tops list of priorities, group says

By Mike Christen

Nonprofit higher education advocacy organization Complete Tennessee released a report last week on the regional barriers preventing Tennesseans from earning postsecondary education.

After reviewing comments by local politicians, educators and community members, four central challenges facing current and prospective postsecondary students emerged:

1. Access barriers, ranging from inadequate transportation to lack of education options;

2. Insufficient early postsecondary education and training opportunities;

3. Limited or inadequate student support services;

4. Misalignment between education and workforce.

“This report shows that the hurdles facing students vary widely by region. However, central themes emerged in our conversations that will guide our work to help communities develop meaningful completion strategies that can support the state’s Drive to 55 goal,” Complete Tennessee Executive Director Kenyatta Lovett said after the release of the review.

“In every region, students were struggling with some kind of access barrier — be it transportation or physical access to postsecondary institutions. For minority, low-income, and first-generation students, more support services are needed to promote access and persistence in postsecondary programs.”

The report compiles findings from a statewide series of roundtable discussions hosted by Complete Tennessee earlier this year.

The regional discussion for southern Middle Tenneseee was held at Spring Hill’s Northfield Workforce Development and Conference Center in February.

According to the report’s review of the region, including Maury, Marshall, Giles, Lawrence, Hickman and Lewis counties, a lack of public transportation, affordability and broadband access remain top priorities keeping people from pursuing higher education.

Those in attendance included Maury County Mayor Charlie Norman, Maury County Assistant Director of Schools Scott Gaines, Jan McKeel of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance and a variety of other local government officials and leaders of education from the greater Southern Middle Tennessee region, including top administrators at Martin Methodist College.

Lawrence County Mayor T.R. Lawrence said the county has a plan for economic growth founded on setting education as a top priority for the county with training geared toward the industries available in the county.

The report also indicates a need for completion mentors and postsecondary alignment and collaboration.

Local institutions of higher learning include Columbia State Community College, Martin Methodist College, Motlow State Community College, The University of the South, Tennessee College of Applied Technology — Hohenwald, TCAT Pulaski and TCAT Shelbyville.

Participants at the discussion commended the region’s local colleges but also observed the absence of local industry at the discussion.

Community leaders also highlighted the importance of cross-sector communication to help ensure postsecondary credentials are aligned with workforce demands.

“Additionally, there is a significant gap between the education and business communities,” Kenyatta said. “Not only does this affect high school students’ ability to gain early familiarity with career and postsecondary pathways, it also makes it harder for students of all ages to efficiently earn the credentials necessary to compete for in-demand, local jobs.”

According to the report, Maury County has a high school graduation rate of 92.1 percent and a college graduation rate of 61.1 percent.

“We just want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make more Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect students complete their degree,” Complete Tennessee Director of Engagement and Advocacy Kaci Murley told those in attendance at the Spring Hill summit.

“We are the first state in the country to allow every student to go to some form of postsecondary education, and that is huge. It is important for us to remind ourselves that didn’t happen overnight. With organizations like the Ayers Foundation, Tennessee Achieves, the 10,000 mentors running around the state and the past two governors, all of that working together is what got us here today.”

As of 2015, a total 35.2 percent of the population has a degree or certificate. To achieve the states’ goal of 51.1 percent of the population will need to earn a degree by 2025.

Maury County would need an additional 7,338 to meet Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 Goals, setting the initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

The report indicates 63.9 percent of Maury County’s residents are employed earning a total of $87.4 million in household benefits, $4.1 million in state sales tax revenue and $2.9 million in local sales tax revenue.

Complete Tennessee, which operates independently from the state, launched in September 2016 with a report highlighting the statistic that three out of every four community college students in the state do not complete their degree.

The investigation, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, found that half of all Tennessee public university students and a third of all University of Tennessee students do not complete their studies.

The organization’s research also found that only one in 20 black students enrolled in community college will attain a degree within three years and that despite a 16 percent decline in the number of postsecondary students requiring remediation, more than half of the state’s students still have a need for the additional review.

“We hope this report will spark additional discussion and collaboration on strategies to address Tennessee’s completion problem – strategies that can be developed alongside and driven by regional stakeholders. Complete Tennessee looks forward to engaging further with community, business and education leaders across Tennessee as we work together to strengthen the state’s higher education system and improve postsecondary access and outcomes for all students.”

To read the full report, entitled “Room to Grow: Regional Perspectives on Higher Education Improvement” visit http://completetennessee.org/.