Check-up on higher education shows state is exceeding goals set to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college or post-secondary degree

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) — Tennessee is exceeding the ambitious “Drive to 55” goal to graduate 79,000 students with a college or post-secondary degree annually  by about 1,500 each year.  The news was part of a “State of Higher Education” report delivered by Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) Executive Director Mike Krause who appeared before members of the Senate Education Committee this week. 

Drive to 55 was launched in 2013 with the goal to raise the number of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree beyond high school from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.  Due to unprecedented growth in the number of bachelor degrees and associate degrees since the program was implemented, the state currently sits at 41 percent.

The improved graduation rate can be partially attributed to the number of adult learners who are coming back to earn their degree through Tennessee’s Reconnect Grant Program.  This is the state’s initiative to help more adults return to higher education to gain new skills, advance in the workplace, and fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree or credential.  THEC estimated 8,000 to 10,000 students would take advantage of the program which was launched last fall.  Enrollment almost doubled those expectations with about 15,000 adults enrolled. 

Tennessee’s success with the program goes against national trends which show declining enrollment, especially as the economy has strengthened.  Krause said many of these adult learners are heads of household making $25,000 or less per year.  “For these adults who are returning, this is a life changing initiative for them and for their families for their economic prospects,” he stated. 

The report also showed Tennessee students are leading the nation in tapping into federal student aid.  The rate of students completing the federal FAFSA application increased from 60.4 percent in 2014 to 80.5 percent in 2018.  FAFSA is the gateway for low income students to access the Pell grant, the HOPE Lottery Scholarship, Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.  Studies show that students who complete the form attended college at higher rates. 

This concentrated effort to provide students with financial aid has also helped reduce the number of Tennesseans with student debt.  Tennessee has dropped from 17th to 10th lowest in the nation in student borrowing since 2016.  

On higher education challenges, Krause expressed concerns about an inequality in education attainment between rural and urban counties.  “It is alarming to us that where you live in Tennessee, in a rural county especially, may well determine your access to opportunity,” he added. “We visited distressed counties and asked them what they need.  What we heard consistently is that career and technical education can be a beacon.  It can help students get high quality technical training while still in high school so they can either go to work, or maybe they show up at one of our TCATs or community colleges and ultimately a university, in an accelerated posture.”  He also said equipment is needed to ensure students get the job training they need to be successful.

Governor Lee has stated his intention to introduce legislation to improve career and technical education in Tennessee high schools.

Finally, Krause said Tennessee should continue to seek academic programs which prepare students for the jobs of the future.  THEC is working with economists to determine future job demands to help students be successful in the workplace and to strengthen the state’s economy.

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