12 rural Tennessee counties eye college completion rates to boost residents’ career skills

Faced with a low number of college-educated workers, 12 rural Tennessee counties are digging into how they can get their residents to complete a degree.

The counties spread out across the state and organized into five regional councils are part of a newly launched pilot initiative by Complete Tennessee focused on clearing hurdles to obtain a college degree or certificate.

The so-called Completion Councils will focus on how to boost the skills of local workers to help attract business and boost local economies. The five regional areas have lower-than-average college completion rates among its residents compared to the rest of the state, a barrier for those counties in attracting jobs.

“This is the centerpiece of all our work at Complete Tennessee because the goal is to create local ownership of the state’s attainment and completion push to make sure more individuals have a college credential at the end of the day,” said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of the nonprofit, which focuses on increased college access and completion.

The pilot “College Completion Communities” programs tie into the state’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks to boost the number of Tennesseans with a college education, and is a major step into the work to boost college completion by the nonprofit formed in 2016.

The Drive to 55 initiative seeks to boost college degree attainment of Tennesseans to 55 percent. Currently, about 40 percent of the state’s residents have a higher education certificate, according to the nonprofit.

The college-degree attainment in the 12 counties is well below that of the rest of the state.

For Washington County, Mayor Dan Eldridge said the low number of residents without a higher level of skill has been a detriment. Recently, a major employer looked to locate to the area, but the company flagged the skill level of workers as an issue, Eldridge said.

It came as a major moment for Eldridge that he said spurred him to create change. He said change can happen within the next several years and part of that is through the attention the council will give to the issue.

“We are really going to be given the opportunity to accelerate and prepare more residents with the skillsets that not only prospective employers, but employers here now, are expecting,” Eldridge said. “We have to get there quickly. It’s not going to take a generation to change, we can look very different four years from now. That’s why I have a real sense of urgency.”

Through the five regional councils, the nonprofit’s leaders hope the rural communities will begin to instill a college mindset into their area culture.

Each of the five regional councils will create a three-year plan to address the regional student challenges of completing college. The councils include educators, chamber of commerce members, business and community leaders, and elected officials.

“Encouraging local engagement and ownership of the Drive to 55 and Tennessee’s completion goals is integral to successfully raising postsecondary outcomes statewide,” said Kaci Murley, Complete Tennessee engagement and advocacy director. “We’re excited to help each of the pilot communities to develop effective plans and innovative solutions that will help more students access and ultimately achieve success through higher education.”

Along with creating the councils, the five will come to Nashville in the fall to share how they are going about their work with other officials.

The College Completion Community Council pilot counties

  • Lauderdale and Tipton counties: Of the West Tennessee’s 88,000 residents, only 20 percent have a college degree.
  • Lake, Obion and Weakley counties: Located near Memphis, the three counties have a combined population of 72,000 residents and about 20 percent have a college degree.
  • Humphreys and Perry counties: The Jackson area counties have about 26,000 residents and 18 percent of them have a college degree.
  • Bradley and Meigs counties: Near Chattanooga, 23 percent of the area’s 114,000 residents have a college degree.
  • Greene, Hamblen and Washington counties: The East Tennessee counties have a combined 257,000 residents and 28 percent of them have a college degree. 


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