Tennessee community colleges are making strides and reforming fastest in the nation | Opinion

The College System of Tennessee keeps raising the bar to challenge students in an open-access system to perform better and thrive.

Flora W. Tydings, Chancellor of the College System of Tennessee

Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect have made it possible for virtually every Tennessean to pursue a college degree or credential that will transform their lives forever.

But removing the financial obstacles to higher education isn’t enough. We’ve also been working hard to ensure that all students who enter college complete college.

This emphasis on completion, led by both Governor Haslam and Governor Bredesen, has already had a profound impact on student success.

Graduation rates at Tennessee community colleges have nearly doubled over the last five years, from 13 percent to 24 percent.

Early analysis of students currently enrolled indicates that rates will rise further over the next two years. These rates are not as high as we want them to be — but the improvement is notable. Additionally, our technical colleges have an 82 percent completion rate.

Here’s why our students require more support

As important as graduation rates are to individuals, they are also important to the overall health of the state — by fulfilling the College System of Tennessee’s share of the “Drive to 55” mission – that 55 percent of Tennesseans have a college degree or credential by 2025.

We do this by making college accessible to more Tennesseans and helping them earn those credentials after enrolling.

Last year, our community colleges awarded 15,240 degrees and certificates, up 82 percent since 2009. Because we exceeded our Drive to 55 targets every year,  the Board of Regents raised them by 25 percent in September.

It’s important to know that we do this this as an open-access system — meaning that our 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology serve everyone regardless of age, academic background, financial status, life circumstances or any other student characteristic.

Because of our unique mission, many of our students require more support and more innovative thinking about how to improve their success. An honest assessment of the state of higher education nearly a decade ago unleashed a wave of innovation and reform on our campuses that continues to this day.

 We have:

  • Overhauled how we prepare students with academic challenges for college-level work.
  • Prioritized student advisers and the role they play in helping students overcome academic and personal challenges.
  • Altered the ways we teach and the kinds of faculty-student interactions that best promote student success.

In addition, we are confronting the runaway costs of textbooks, and the persistent issue of equity, in which student success is not equal across racial, geographic and income lines.

Tennessee is furthest along in the nation on community college reforms

Tennessee’s community colleges have been at the forefront of nationwide reforms for a decade, including innovations that help students navigate academic programs and ensure that these programs prepare them for the workforce.

These efforts were recognized last year by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, which reported that the College System of Tennessee is “probably furthest along in implementing … reforms of any community college system in the country.”

The study recognized the significant improvements in student momentum toward completion and the “multiyear, whole-college transformations” that have occurred across our community colleges.

Some of these reforms require significant resources, and funding support by the governor and legislature  has been crucial to the improvements in student success. State government has provided — and the College System of Tennessee has delivered.

But we cannot ease off the throttle. The improvements in student success have impacted thousands of Tennesseans, but our colleges still have a long way to go to raise success rates to the higher levels we want.

As we recognize the need for continued growth, any assessment of the last decade makes clear that our community colleges have fundamentally changed how they approach student success — and that graduation rates and other metrics are moving briskly in the right direction.

Flora W. Tydings, Ed.D., is chancellor of the College System of Tennessee, governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, which includes Tennessee’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology. She previously served as president of Chattanooga State Community and Athens Technical College in Athens, Ga.


Comments are closed.