Beating the Odds in Tennessee: A Q&A with Kenyatta Lovett, Executive Director of Complete Tennessee

Insights & Outlooks: Can you share more about your personal story and why equity in higher education matters to you?

Kenyatta Lovett: My higher education story begins with the college journeys of my father and mother. Both were the first in their family to go to college.

My father sat out a year after high school to lay bricks in Memphis and save enough money to pay for college. He eventually would earn his Ph.D. and serve as a history professor for more than 30 years at a university in Nashville. My mother had several stop-outs in her journey – money, family, etc. – and finished college in her thirties.

My parents remain among the few in their families that have been successful at completing college. While my siblings and I have been fortunate to have two parents with college degrees, many of our close family members have not completed college, which amplifies the reality that there are many longstanding barriers to completion.

It is hard to describe the impression my father had on me, and the talks he would give regarding the role of higher education in our society. For him, it has defined his life’s work as a student, as a professor, and as a parent. When my career path led to a job at a community college, it was like going home. But what I did not anticipate was the opportunity to see and experience my father’s lessons about the challenges so many face when considering higher education and the courage it takes for them to complete that college journey.

In every student, I see my father and mother’s bravery, and I know what success for that student will mean to them and their immediate family.

Insights & Outlooks: What are some of the innovative practices and policies that Tennessee has introduced to promote completion and equity?

Kenyatta Lovett: Entering the world of higher education at a time of real innovation in Tennessee has transformed my view of what is possible. It all began with the Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010, which opened the door for notable programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect. The state’s efforts to encourage early remediation and even corequisite remediation have found fertile ground in policy and practice, due to the high value placed on student success.

Most importantly, these programs and policies have shed light on Tennessee’s pervasive challenges in closing equity gaps. It is not until you take steps to remove the biggest barriers to postsecondary education that you uncover other, less obvious challenges that prevent different student demographics from pursuing and completing a degree program.

Tennessee’s has launched a wave of innovation in response to this learning process. The city of Nashville has embarked on a program to offer non-tuition supports for low-income students. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission has made intentional investments in rural communities. And we are witnessing an explosion of adult education programs and early postsecondary education opportunities for high school students statewide.

What are Complete Tennessee’s key policy priorities right now?

Kenyatta Lovett: Complete Tennessee does not lobby or weigh in on policy discussions. We do, however, conduct research on key issues that inform policy and practice in higher education.

Our annual State of Higher Education in Tennessee report outlines opportunities for improvement to raise higher education outcomes in Tennessee. Specifically, this year’s report notes that the state must dedicate intense attention to ensuring success rates are improving for all students, especially historically underserved students of color, students from rural and urban communities, and low-income students.

To accomplish this goal, Complete Tennessee calls for:

  • Elected officials, higher education stakeholders, and institutional leaders to come together and identify ambitious but attainable annual goals to increase on-time graduation rates across racial and ethnic populations, income level, and geography.
  • Students to engage in the process of setting these targets and help hold leaders accountable for progress.
  • Advocates—including Complete Tennessee—to elevate equity concerns across higher education, in partnership with policy leaders, researchers, philanthropic and business leaders, and on-campus professionals.

Also, the recent work to engage and offer college access for incarcerated citizens is in need of serious attention. Finally, we see an opportunity to build intentional strategies to address faculty diversity, given the outcomes we see when shared experiences play a role in the classroom.

Can you share more details about Complete Tennessee’s new report on equity?

Kenyatta Lovett: From our research and reviews of previous data and reports, Tennessee is making progress on many fronts when it comes to outcomes in higher education. Our degree attainment rate is also making promising gains, rising to 43% in the most recent Lumina Foundation report. However, the gaps based on race, income, and even age remain stagnant.

According to our new State of Higher Education in Tennessee report:

  • Community college graduation rates have increased by nearly 70 percent—from 13 percent to 22 percent—since 2013. However, fewer than one out of every four community college students graduate within three years.
  • Only one in ten Black students will complete a community college degree, and only a third of Black students graduate within six years of enrollment at Tennessee’s locally-governed four-year institutions.
  • Despite Tennessee’s commitment to increasing college affordability, fewer than a third of the state’s low-income students enroll in postsecondary programs, trailing all but two other states in the Southeast and falling far behind the national average.
  • Nearly 14 percent of adult Tennesseans have less than a high school education.

I am confident Tennessee can exceed the national average in college completion and degree attainment rates if we can successfully close these equity gaps. Tennessee has demonstrated the willingness and capacity to do these things, and our work has inspired other states to take on similar approaches. The State of Higher Education in Tennessee report emphasizes the need to maintain a sense of urgency and continue inspiring the nation to think outside of the box about student success.

If you had one lesson to share with federal policymakers about how states can improve equity and outcomes, what would it be?

Kenyatta Lovett: State efforts to rein in college costs and provide tuition-free alternatives have revealed a tremendous opportunity to evaluate and address other, non-tuition cost barriers for our most at-risk college students.

Policymakers in Tennessee communities are taking steps to explore related financial challenges, such as transportation costs, books and course materials, and childcare, that affect students’ ability to earn a college degree. In Nashville, for example, Mayor David Briley recently announced a scholarship to target non-tuition expenses for students.

Unless we develop strategies to address other barriers to higher education like these – which largely affect underserved or disadvantaged students – the gaps in outcomes will remain or grow.

What’s one book, publication or podcast that inspires you to do this work? 

The thought piece that was shared with our Board, staff, and partners was Our Kids by Robert D. Putnam. There are so many great resources out there today to help us understand the challenges that confront the improvement of higher education, and this book sets the stage well.

I also strongly encourage readers to view the film Unlikely, which investigates the college dropout crisis, to gain a sense of hope and optimism for the possibilities in higher education.