No Time to Wait:

The State of Higher Education in Tennessee 

Over the last decade, Tennessee has advanced a series of K-12 and higher education policy reforms that have created a wealth of opportunities for Tennesseans to pursue more affordable postsecondary credentials. These efforts have positioned Tennessee as a national leader for collaboration, bold policy action, and commitment to promoting student success. Still, significant equity and attainment gaps persist, and too many students and families have yet to benefit from this recent progress.

Assessing Tennessee’s Progress

Tennessee has made great progress in recent years, increasing postsecondary attainment at a faster rate than nearly every state across the nation. However, Tennessee’s 2016 attainment rate of 40.7% still fell behind the national average of 46.9%. Reaching the Drive to 55 goal to ensure 55% of Tennesseans have a postsecondary credential by 2025 will require sustained commitment to student success.

Insisting on Equity

Since 2014, Tennessee community college graduation rates have increased, while graduation rates remained steady across the University of Tennessee system and at private institutions. However, graduation rates fell across six locally-governed, four-year institutions. Today, only a third of Black students graduate within six years of enrollment at these universities.

Additionally, faculty of color are underrepresented at Tennessee’s postsecondary institutions. Extensive research shows all students benefit from a more diverse faculty; institutions and academic departments should examine their recruitment, hiring, and early-career faculty support practices to address the critical need for more representative faculty teaching, conducting research, and mentoring students in Tennessee institutions.

Acting on a Vision of Opportunity for All Tennesseans

Recent progress to increase degree completion and postsecondary attainment in Tennessee deserves celebration, but this celebration must be coupled with an intense commitment to ensuring success rates are improving for all students, especially historically underserved students of color, students from rural and urban communities, and low-income students. To accomplish this goal, Complete Tennessee calls for:

  • Elected officials, higher education stakeholders, and institutional leaders to come together and identify ambitious but attainable annual goals to increase on-time graduation rates across racial and ethnic populations, income level, and geography.

  • Students to engage in the process of setting these targets and help hold leaders accountable for progress.

  • Advocates—including Complete Tennessee—to elevate equity concerns across higher education, in partnership with policy leaders, researchers, philanthropic and business leaders, and on-campus professionals.

Complete Tennessee stands ready to partner with a diverse set of leaders to address these challenges and promote a more equitable and economically prosperous Tennessee for all.