State of Higher Education in Tennessee | 2017 Listening Tour: Lessons from the Northwest Roundtable

Union City, Tennessee

Kenyatta Lovett, Ph.D., Executive Director


Last week, we kicked off our 2017 Listening Tour with the first in a series of nine roundtable discussions. This marks the start of an ongoing dialogue and partnership with communities across the state, with the State of Higher Education in Tennessee report as the central theme for the conversation. Our first roundtable in the Northwest region highlighted the many reasons we believe improving degree attainment in the state should be driven by communities.

Three topics, from my perspective, define the outcome of the Northwest region roundtable.

The regional approach can work!

Before the event, we wondered whether participants would be willing to think beyond their specific county and embrace a regional conversation on postsecondary education. While the conversation has inspired us to make some improvements to how we establish the proper regional frame, we were excited to hear the dialogue in the room focused mainly on challenges and opportunities common to all counties and the overall impact on the regional economy.

Access remains a problem for the region.

High-school graduation and college-going rates exceed the state average in the Northwest region. These impressive outcomes, however, are not always reflected in the performance of local postsecondary institutions. Discussions at several tables highlighted the barriers to postsecondary access caused by limited public and personal transportation. The participants also believe there may be career alignment issues for students due to lack of awareness about current and emerging career fields in the area. This again highlights the impact of a regional approach to solving the completion problem, given the limited power of individual county resources in the region to adequately address transportation or career opportunities.

There is a common challenge in the region related to out-migration or brain-drain.

While the graduation and college-going rates for high school students in the region exceed the state average, enrollment for local postsecondary institutions is on a steady decline. Many in the room believe the region’s natural supply of qualified and skilled workers - high school graduates and young adults - are leaving the area to enroll in college or find work in regions with more promising job prospects. While Tennessee has experienced an overall positive net in-migration rate over the past few years, the Northwest region of the state has experienced a much different outcome. Once again, the regional differences matter!

While first impressions mean a great deal in developing strong relationships, I believe a framework of consistency and shared goals make the difference in great partnerships. People say collaboration moves at the speed of trust—I hope the participants found the roundtable worthy of the trust needed to work toward a common goal of improving degree attainment in the region. On behalf of the Complete Tennessee staff, it was an honor to start our listening tour in the Northwest region.


A special thanks to Ricky Boyd, Obion County Commissioner, and the Discovery Park of America staff for hosting us last week.

Roundtable discussions have been announced in the Southern Middle, Southwest, and East regions as Complete Tennessee continues the State of Higher Education 2017 Listening Tour.