Tennessee bolstering efforts to improve college graduation rates

Tennessee bolstering efforts to improve college graduation rates

June 14th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

Drew Fry, a senior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, leads a group of upcoming high school seniors and their parents through the Stophel apartment complex on a tour of UTC student housing facilities in this 2013 file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you have a college degree?


The Problem: Not enough Tennessee residents are earning associate's or bachelors' degrees. About 32 percent of adults have some type of degree, putting Tennessee 43rd in the nation. At the current rate, the state won't come close to reaching Gov. Bill Haslam's goal of seeing 55 percent of adults earn college degrees by 2025.

Why it matters: Jobs everywhere increasingly require some form of post-secondary education. A 2012 Georgetown University study predicted that nearly two-thirds of all American jobs in 2020 will require education beyond high school.

What Tennessee is doing about it: Haslam has made transforming higher education a major focus. Tennessee joined an online university program to encourage adults with some college course work to complete degrees. The state has linked college and university funding to outcomes such as graduation rates. And colleges are offering more programs designed specifically for adults.

Document: A Stronger Nation

Annual report from Lumina Foundation: A Stronger Nation through Higher Education

Not enough Tennesseans are earning college degrees - a problem policymakers and college leaders are trying to fix.

But without major improvement, Tennessee won't come close to meeting Gov. Bill Haslam's goal of getting more than half of the state's adults to complete associate's or bachelor's degrees by 2025.

A new national report puts Tennessee at 43rd among states for college attainment -- the percentage of adults between 25 and 64 with some kind of degree.

That figure must improve for the state to prepare enough people for the job market, which increasingly requires some sort of education beyond high school.

Georgia's college attainment rate of 36.4 percent outpaced Tennessee's rate of 32.1 percent, though both rates were below the national average of 38.3 percent.

In Georgia, the report shows fewer young adults are earning degrees, a concerning finding because that group is the best predictor of where attainment rates are heading.

America's transition from an industrial economy to a global, tech-driven one will continue to require more sophisticated training of its workers. A 2012 Georgetown University study predicted that nearly two-thirds of all American jobs in 2020 will require some kind of post-secondary education.

"We can't expect our citizens to meet the demands of the 21st century economy and society without a 21st-century education," said Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, which issued the report, "A Stronger Nation through Higher Education."

Lumina, a private national foundation that works to increase college attainment, has set a goal of getting 60 percent of Americans to earn degrees by 2025. Haslam's "Drive to 55" goal for Tennessee is slightly less ambitious at 55 percent. Yet this week's report predicts the state will reach only about 39 percent by 2025 at the current pace.

To get degrees to more people, officials say, public schools must better prepare students for college. And the state must find ways to make college programs more affordable and accessible, while retaining students through graduation.

But there are signs that Tennessee is on the right track.

The state has linked higher education funding with outcomes such as graduation rates. Tennessee joined Western Governors University to help adults who already have some college course work under their belts to complete degree programs. And in legislation passed this year, the Labor Education Alignment Program allows students at technology centers and colleges to combine occupational training in some industries with academic credit and apply that experience toward a degree.

Merisotis said Tennessee's rethinking of higher education can serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

"We think Tennessee is building the building blocks that are setting the state on the right path," he said.

Rethinking higher ed

Chattanooga State Community College President Jim Catanzaro says community colleges can play an integral role in "re-engineering" Tennessee's higher education system and getting more people through degree programs.

Community colleges are more affordable, more accessible and are able to adapt quickly to change and growth, he said.

Former Gov. Phil Bredesen pushed for more Tennessee high school graduates to start college at two-year schools and transfer to universities to earn degrees.

Catanzaro said beefing up community college enrollment would help to bolster the selectivity of state universities and allow more students a better shot at graduating.

"Why put them in a place where they're not likely to succeed?" he said. "It's not good for them. And it's not good for our state."

To that end, Catanzaro is proposing the state allow Chattanooga State to start offering bachelor's degree programs.

But he cautioned against just adding degree programs. The key is designing quality training and education that prepares students for jobs, he said.

Getting in, staying In

To encourage Hamilton County students to attend college, the school district and the Public Education Foundation together have placed a college access adviser in every county high school.

PEF figures show about 65 percent of 2012 graduates enrolled in a college program. That rate has held steady over recent years, officials said. Yet only about half the students who enrolled in higher education programs actually had graduated within six years, data show.

"It's a challenge," said PEF President Dan Challener. "Access is one thing, but success is another."

In fact, many Tennessee adults have attended some form of college without graduating. Lumina's report says the state should try to reach out to the 22 percent of Tennesseans with some course work under their belt but no degree.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Achieve Degree online program aims at doing just that. Organizers hope it will provide a realistic educational option for adults who are busy with work and families.

"When I encounter working adults, the biggest problem we have is finding classes that fit their schedule," said program coordinator Gretchen Potts.

And reaching those who never completed a degree program is essential, said David Smith, the governor's spokesman.

Because even if every single high school graduate between now and 2025 earned a college degree, it wouldn't put the state at its goal of 55 percent college attainment.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.