Tennessee leads in access to college

7/12/2017

I had the chance a few weeks ago to hear from Kendall, a student from Middle Tennessee who was among the first to use Tennessee Promise to attend college. While no one in his family had graduated from college, he recognized his aspirations could only be fulfilled by earning a college degree. So, like tens of thousands of other high school students in our state, Tennessee Promise became his passport into higher education, and most likely, a completely different economic future.

“Tennessee Promise opened everything up for me,” he said.

Listening to him, I thought back to 2013 when Gov. Haslam first launched the Drive to 55, our effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree to 55 percent by 2025. Kendall’s story was the embodiment of that vision, and made clear that the Drive to 55 is not abstract, but rather, a program that directly connects with students and families.

Focusing on the Drive to 55 required us to fundamentally change the conversation about the importance of a college degree. In the past, breaking in to the middle class did not necessarily require a postsecondary credential. However, today’s reality is that workforce needs have shifted.

The modernization of manufacturing processes and the central role that technology now plays in virtually every career field requires a level of technical competency beyond high school. In response, our state has intentionally pursued new pathways for student success at our colleges and universities, and when necessary, been willing to embrace bold policy innovations.

Tennessee Promise is the most visible of these policies, completely altering the college access pipeline. We are the first state to offer all graduating seniors the opportunity to attend community college tuition-free. In just the first year of the program, 4,000 new students enrolled at our campuses and the number of student loan applications dropped by 17 percent. These results have surpassed all expectations and led to the adoption of similar programs in Oregon, Nevada and New York.

While increasing opportunity for recent high school graduates is important, reaching the Drive to 55 also requires us to build pathways to higher education for nontraditional students. This means reaching adults, both those who have attended college and didn’t graduate, and those who never enrolled in higher education.

These adults are at the center of the new Tennessee Reconnect grant. Approved by the General Assembly last month and slated to launch in the fall of 2018, this program allows these students to attend a community or technical college tuition-free.

Ultimately, the Drive to 55 and programs like Promise and Reconnect have a common goal: removing barriers between students like Kendall and a college degree.

Accomplishing this task will change our state’s economic future, and most importantly, the lives of millions of Tennesseans.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by MIKE KRAUSE

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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