One year ago Wednesday, Gov. Bill Haslam — with the support of the Tennessee General Assembly — took a bold and unprecedented step. As part of his Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to boost the percentage of Tennesseans holding a postsecondary credential from 32 to 55 percent by the year 2025, he launched WGU Tennessee, a nonprofit online university for working adults.
Drive to 55 remains an ambitious goal designed to prepare our state’s workforce for the ultracompetitive job market of the future. A number of recent studies have shown that earning a college degree is more important now than ever before. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute in May revealed that the pay gap between college graduates and nongraduates reached a record high in 2013. In the state of Tennessee alone, there are an estimated 940,000 adults with some college credit but no degree. To put that number in perspective, that’s roughly 15 percent of the total state population. WGU Tennessee was created to close that gap, and we’re well on our way.
As of this month, more than 1,200 students are enrolled at WGU Tennessee. On June 14, we held our inaugural commencement ceremony in Nashville, where 150 Tennesseans were recognized for earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. We were thrilled to learn in mid-June that the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) ranked the Teachers College of WGU as the No. 1 secondary education teacher prep program in the nation (out of 2,400 programs) and ranked our elementary teacher prep program No. 16 overall.
During my first year as WGU Tennessee’s chancellor, I’ve had the privilege of traveling extensively from one end of the state to the other, educating diverse audiences about our university and competency-based model. Along the way, I’ve met folks from all walks of life, all sharing one thing in common — a passionate enthusiasm for helping more Tennessee adults achieve the dream of a college degree.
As Gov. Haslam noted when we launched, we exist to fill a critical gap in the higher education landscape. With that mission in mind, I have worked hard to connect and partner with businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions across our state. In May we were proud to announce that graduates and staff of all 13 Tennessee community colleges will now receive discounted tuition to WGU Tennessee. We now have similar partnerships in place with some of Tennessee’s largest companies, municipal governments and health care providers. All of these organizations share a vested interest in helping more Tennesseans graduate with a degree.
As we pause to mark our one-year anniversary, we look ahead to the task still before us. Four years from now, I would like our enrollment to top 5,000 students. Like Drive to 55, this goal is ambitious. With the continuing support of so many incredible Tennesseans of all stripes, though, it’s a goal I believe we can attain.
Kimberly K. Estep, Ph.D., is the chancellor of WGU Tennessee. For more information, visit the WGU Tennessee website, http://tennessee.wgu.edu, or call 1-855-948-8495.