By Mike Krause, Executive Director, Tennessee Higher Education Commission
Like most people, I take immense pride in my home state.
Tennessee is home to many who have made significant contributions, including great Americans like Sergeant Alvin York, author Alex Haley, and entertainers such as Dolly Parton and Tina Turner. And just as residents of the Old North State hold an affinity for their Carolina barbeque, we possess a fierce loyalty to Nashville hot chicken and Memphis ribs.
But what I appreciate most is that our state pride hasn’t prevented us from having an honest, transparent conversation about the challenges we face. The reality is, for too long, Tennessee lagged behind the rest of the nation in both high school graduation and higher education attainment. We sent fewer students to college than other states, resulting in only 36 percent of our residents having a college degree. Equally troubling, when our students did enroll, almost three-quarters of them required costly remedial courses to keep their seats in college. These conditions had become so embedded in the fabric of our state that the only way to alter course was to upend the status quo of educational culture in Tennessee by setting an audacious goal: to increase the share of residents with a college degree to 55 percent.
This goal, known as the Drive to 55, articulated a vision that 55 percent of Tennesseans would earn a postsecondary degree or credential by the year 2025. This vision was predicated on the belief that these efforts were not just an imperative for higher education but rather, an essential step to build our workforce pipeline – a step that would require a broader definition of college. While some are of the notion that “going to college” means attending a four-year university, we recognized that a full spectrum of postsecondary credentials, from welding and practical nursing diplomas to doctoral degrees, would be required to move the state forward.
Nearly five years later, we have seen remarkable progress. Our flagship initiative, the Tennessee Promise, enabled us to become the first state in the nation to provide tuition-free community or technical college to high school graduates. Since its launch, we have increased the number of Tennesseans attending college immediately after high school by 5 percent, resulting in nearly 4,000 new students on our campuses throughout the state. Proudly, Tennessee now leads the nation in financial aid submissions.
We also recognized another demographic in need of educational opportunity, our adult residents. This year, we are launching Tennessee Reconnect, which provides tuition-free education and workforce retraining for adults already in the labor market, and Tennessee LEAP, which awards grant funds to communities working to align education offerings with local workforce needs.
While there is much work left to be done, there a few critical lessons that I’ve learned through launching these initiatives:
- Take the Time to Build Buy-In | Our team devoted time for intentionally building the Drive to 55 brand, so that Tennesseans across the state could understand our goal, recognize the economic imperative to increasing attainment, and identify how they could connect with our work. Those public relations efforts paid off as we began to see more and more educators and industry leaders embed the Drive to 55 attainment message in their day-to-day work.
- Coordination is Key | The Drive to 55 Alliance was launched in partnership with our efforts and provides an opportunity to connect with our most important customer: the workforce. Representing a range of Fortune 500 companies that call Tennessee home, this group allows us to engage with business leaders and ensure our efforts are calibrated to support their growth.
- Recognize the Varying Needs of Communities Statewide | As the Drive to 55 initiative began, we visited every corner of the state to talk with students and educators about how to improve higher education. We worked to ensure the policy solutions launched under the Drive to 55 accounted for the unique needs of the state’s diverse geographic regions and demographic groups.
The good news: as long as we sustain our current momentum, Tennessee is on track to meet our attainment goal in 2023 – two years ahead of schedule.
While we are incredibly proud of our accomplishments to date, continuing to push the envelope of our degree production will require a sustained focus on the Drive to 55 goal. Crossing that finish line will mean we have changed our narrative as a state and put the opportunity of a college education within reach of every Tennessean. And that’s a goal worth pursuing.