State of Higher Education in Tennessee | 2017 Listening Tour: Looking Back on April at the End of the Listening Tour

The Complete Tennessee team wrapped up the State of Higher Education in Tennessee 2017 Listening Tour in April with roundtable events in the Memphis Delta and Northern Middle Regions. These events marked the continuation of our fact-finding mission in each of Tennessee’s nine economic regions, the culmination of our first major community engagement campaign, and a moment of reflection before moving forward with the work to increase postsecondary completion in our state.


Memphis Delta

Memphis, Tennessee

April 12, 2017

Held at BRIDGES in downtown Memphis, the Memphis Delta roundtable was well-attended by community leaders representing the entire completion pipeline. We thank the Commercial Appeal for highlighting the conversation on barriers to college completion.

Significant concerns were raised surrounding workforce priorities and the credentials that align with these priorities. Also, much of the discussion centered on the challenge of expanding the college-going culture and encouraging equitable outcomes.

Participants discussed the current supply of skilled and credential workers compared to the number of Memphians potentially available to augment this supply, if properly engaged in postsecondary education. Some felt the discrepancy was partially due to a disconnect between programs offered, time needed to complete said programs, and the opportunity for employment after completion. All agreed that this disconnect was in direct competition with an illicit economy – forcing postsecondary institutions and business leaders to “compete with the streets.”

Attendees stressed that postsecondary education opportunities need a streamlined and redesigned approach for timely entry, completion, and job placement. This was the first in-depth conversation during our travels across the state that highlighted the disincentives for students considering higher education and degree attainment.


Northern Middle

Nashville, Tennessee

April 19, 2017

Our final roundtable took place at beautiful Casa Azafrán, home of Conexión Américas.  Participants noted the appropriateness of the location, given recent legislative actions regarding tuition opportunity for undocumented students. This set the tone for leaders to discuss the barriers related to college completion through the lens of equitable outcomes for all students in Northern Middle Tennessee.

Attendees also noted the dichotomy of a booming labor market, as explored in other regions. While some regions, such as the Southeast region, have an increased demand for skilled jobs, others, like Nashville and the Northern Middle region, are home to a vibrant service-based economy where fewer than half of jobs require any postsecondary training or credentials.

This creates a disincentive to enroll in higher education, participants explained; individuals are quick to enter the workforce and unlikely to leave a job to return to education. One participant also linked this trend to the current career-focused narrative surrounding education, saying we cannot blame individuals for their reluctance to leave paid work for school when the only proposed incentive is the potential for a “better” job.

During the roundtable, attendees also explored the barriers presented by the “hidden curriculum,” or social knowledge students are expected to know to succeed in college. For example, attendees noted that students who grew up knowing they were college-bound are more likely to have some familiarity with the systems through which they can access any necessary assistance, be it financial or counseling, to help them gain access to postsecondary education. First-generation students, however, are at a significant disadvantage because they aren’t always aware of these systems up front. Participants believed institutions must provide comprehensive orientation, advising, and mentoring programs to help ensure student success.


The final two roundtables of the 2017 Listening Tour were appropriately rich in conversation and inspiration. In each of the nine roundtables, Complete Tennessee was greeted with enthusiasm from community leaders wishing to elevate the conversation on completion.  The feedback gained from these events tells us much about the completion landscape across Tennessee, and will prove invaluable as we begin to work with individual communities and regions to improve completion outcomes.

Complete Tennessee will release a report on the 2017 Listening Tour in early June.  This report will detail the challenges and opportunities in each region, as well as the common themes heard across the state, to inform community leaders, higher education institutions, and policymakers about important regional characteristics as we pursue the state’s Drive to 55 goals.