State of Higher Education in Tennessee | 2017 Listening Tour: Looking back on February

February was a busy month for Complete Tennessee! We continued our State of Higher Education Listening Tour with roundtables in three diverse regions of Tennessee.  While a goal of the tour is to identify issues that affect college completion, we also know every community is different. That’s why we want to highlight challenges unique to each area and help communities develop localized strategies to improve student outcomes. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for raising graduation rates.

Here are the highlights from the three regions we visited in February:


Southern Middle

Spring Hill, Tennessee

February 1, 2017

We started the month in Maury County at the Northfield Workforce Development & Conference Center, where we first toured the building and its partner educators—Columbia State Community College, TCAT-Hohenwald, TCAT-Pulaski, and Martin Methodist College. Roundtable attendees underscored the value of this collaboration because it not only exposes more students to more higher education opportunities, it also allows communities to make better use of resources and helps address barriers to students, such as lack of transportation and convenience.

During our roundtables in different regions of the state, several community leaders have said that a first step to better serving students is addressing “turf wars” that exist between colleges. First, high school counselors and college advisors must be more intentional in their efforts to help students choose the right institution that fits their needs. Second, the TCATs, community colleges and universities must shift attention away from recruitment and instead focus more heavily on helping the students who are already on campus graduate. This is a priority in Tennessee, and it’s a central reason for the Complete College TN Act, which fully funds institutions based on outcomes - not enrollment.

Special thanks to our host, Jan McKeel and the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance for the hospitality-- and the Maury County Public Schools culinary arts class for the cookies!



Jackson, Tennessee

February 7, 2017

We met with a diverse group of stakeholders in the Jackson Chamber on an unseasonably warm, rainy day in Southwest Tennessee.  Leaders from local government, economic and workforce development, nonprofits, and higher education filled the room.

A central theme of this roundtable was career exposure. Job shadowing, apprenticeships, extended mentoring – whatever the avenue, the group agreed that in order to better prepare students for the workforce, students need to be exposed to job opportunities and workplace expectations sooner and more deliberately.

When industry representatives raised restrictions barring students from certain workplace situations, chamber officials pushed back, giving examples of partnerships that reevaluated outdated policies to allow students the experiences they need.  This sparked a series of ideas for breaking down long-held ideas (and even some misconceptions) that limit opportunities for students. It was clear that the Southwest region is ready for increased alignment between higher education and industry.

Special thanks to Kyle Spurgeon and the Jackson Chamber for their hospitality and participation.



Knoxville, Tennessee

February 15, 2017

Our final roundtable of the month took place at Pellissippi State Community College’s Hardin Valley Campus. Complete Tennessee board chairman, Randy Boyd, opened the session with remarks on the organization's vision and the regional and state economic benefit of higher completion rates.  With ten college presidents in the room, higher education was as well represented at this roundtable as it is in the region.

This part of the state has some of the highest and lowest performing counties for college access and attainment. It is clear that certain counties have the assets, investment, and leadership to ensure students are exposed to many postsecondary options, while other counties are isolated and struggle with resources.  

While a goal for each roundtable is to candidly examine the barriers to increasing graduation rates, this is not a simple topic to address. Much of this conversation centered on institution-specific pilot programs and initiatives to increase enrollment rather than addressing the complexities of scaling programs that increase student success throughout the region. East Tennessee has great potential to meaningfully contribute to the state’s Drive to 55 goals through increasing graduation rates—if stakeholders are able to look beyond their individual contributions and commit to the broader goal.

Special thanks to Dr. Anthony Wise, president of Pellissippi State Community College, for hosting us and for providing insight into the completion challenge at PSCC.


The State of Higher Education 2017 Listening Tour continues in March with roundtable discussions in Cookeville, Greeneville, and Chattanooga. Stay tuned for more updates!


Photo courtesy of Mark A. Large, The Daily Times.