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

Cookeville, Tennessee

Kenyatta Lovett, Ph.D., Executive Director


The Upper Cumberland region remains a special place for me. Throughout my professional career in higher education, I have learned much about community-driven leadership from my colleagues and friends in the area. The roundtable Complete Tennessee held in Cookeville last week was one of the most in-depth and constructive conversations from the listening tour. It reinforced my appreciation for the region’s commitment to improving the lives of students, despite great challenges.

Three especially important issues were raised during our discussion that may resonate with many communities in Tennessee:

Employers want to hear from postsecondary institutions about emerging skills and training that can benefit the local labor market.

The full industry landscape is difficult for individual businesses to visualize, but local colleges and universities have a higher vantage point that allows them to quickly identify opportunities for employers to upgrade the skills of their workforce. A more proactive approach to program development is needed to continue advancing industry in the region.

Community colleges play an integral role in expanding regional education opportunities.

The Upper Cumberland is served by three “satellite” community colleges, but the region still qualifies as an “access desert”, lacking the robust postsecondary options to adequately serve the citizens in the region. With Cookeville serving as a major economic hub for counties in the area and the state, addressing this lack of access will be critical to any long-range strategy for completion in the region.

There are serious enrollment and completion challenges for adults.

A recent adult graduate, who is also a county mayor in the region, shared his experience as a nontraditional student. His journey was packed with barriers and detours that eventually led to success. The Upper Cumberland region will need to produce an additional 32,383 postsecondary credentials to meet their local Drive-to-55 goal. To be successful, the region must encourage more adults to return to school. The county mayor’s story, combined with the very real “access desert” challenge, highlight the urgency of implementing a holistic strategy for completion in the region.

The same level of grit and perseverance required for the county mayor to successfully complete college will be required of the entire Upper Cumberland region in the fight to improve postsecondary attainment and encourage greater completion. From what we learned during this roundtable, I am confident the Upper Cumberland will continue pressing forward together to make completion matter for everyone.


A special thank you goes to Lillian Hargrove, the Cookeville Chamber of Commerce and the Leslie Town Centre for hosting the event and allowing us to learn more about completion in the Upper Cumberland.

Check back for updates from the Northeast regional roundtable. Complete Tennessee continues the State of Higher Education 2017 Listening Tour in Chattanooga.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Weidner, APR.