Drive to 55 Director: “Success Hinges on Culture Change”

Mike Krause is executive director of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative.(Photo: File / Gannett Tennessee )

Joey Garrison, [email protected]

The Tennessean

Ultimately, Gov. Bill Haslam will be the one graded on making headway with his cornerstone education initiative, but Mike Krause is tasked with leading the way.

Since June, Krause has crisscrossed Tennessee — just last week, he met with 61 local school districts — as the new executive director of Drive to 55, Haslam’s highly touted initiative to increase the state’s percentage of college graduates from around 33 percent today to 55 percent by 2025.

The governor’s appointment of the 32-year-old Krause, a former member of the 101st Airborne Division and Cookeville native who had already been working on college attainment at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, received universal praise within education circles.

Now, it’s time to start showing results in an area Krause says will require a “culture change” in this state.

He believes that will happen with the linchpin of Drive to 55 — Tennessee Promise, a new plan pushed by Haslam that will offer all high school graduates free tuition to attend community colleges and technical schools.

It begins next fall, but the deadline for current seniors to apply is Nov. 1, much earlier than the typical application process. Part of the reason is the assignment of mentors to participating students. A push is already underway to deliver information fliers to every high school senior in the state by Aug. 15.

The Tennessean sat down with Krause to discuss the challenges of producing more college graduates.

Where do you begin with an initiative of this size — something that involves K-12 to higher education?

You never let one initiative take up all of the air in the room. The Tennessee Promise is certainly central to the Drive to 55. But one of my daily goals is to not lose sight of What are we doing for adult learners? What are we doing with our collaborations with K-12? In order to get a state to increase their attainment to 55 percent by 2025, it just requires that holistic effort.

How are you letting Tennessee students and families know that free tuition is an option?

It’s absolutely a monumental outreach effort. We’ll be engaging with seniors. We’ll be engaging with guidance counselors. We’ve already engaged with their K-12 superintendents. We’ll be holding 13 regional trainings for guidance counselors. We’re publishing a guidance counselor handbook for Tennessee Promise. Our goal is by the time that student reaches October, all of our seniors are acquainted with the program and have been given an opportunity to apply. I would say it’s unprecedented to have this level of involvement in financial aid outreach to students.

Getting kids to college is, of course, just one step. Many, if not most, Tennessee Promise recipients could come from low-income homes. Has thought been given to living assistance beyond just tuition?

Absolutely. Our most needy students will receive a full Pell award. At a community college, your cost of attending will probably be about $4,000, and a full Pell award is going to be over $5,000. So that full Pell award will assist with some of the living cost. (And) Tennessee Promise is going to, in effect, be filling the gap for first-time freshmen. Community colleges will no longer need to commit funds to that pool of students. Can they repurpose those funds to serve for living costs, books and transportation? We’ve asked them to start examining that.

I’ve heard you say the state has declared a “war on math remediation in Tennessee.” What do you mean?

There’s no way we reach the Drive to 55 if we remain on the remedial treadmill — that if a student has a high school diploma, that in their mind and their parents’ minds means, ‘I’m prepared to succeed in college,’ only to find they’re required to take this remedial math course that they are charged money for and they do not receive credit for.

(Krause then pointed to the state’s SAILS program for math — Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support — piloted last year.)

When a student enters their senior year, they’ve already taken the ACT at the end of their junior year. If they score below a 19 in math, we know they’re going to require remedial study. Can you take that student’s senior year and use it to deliver remediation, as opposed to a math course that is not connected to what higher education will ask of them? We piloted it last year in a group of 8,000 students, and 88 percent of them saved one semester of remediation and 66 percent completed all remediation while still in high school. That is a stunning success.

When does the number of college graduates need to begin ticking up to reach the 55 percent goal?

Before you look for a change in attainment, you watch your college-going rate, which is 59 percent right now in Tennessee. We’ve not set a specific target, but what we’d like to see is substantial and meaningful annual increases by county.

Have inquiries been flowing in from other states about Tennessee Promise?

The sheer volume of requests from outside this state is daunting. People who I’ve known for years in the higher education community — everybody is watching Tennessee right now.

Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.

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