How Tennessee is Writing a New Narrative about College Opportunity

The last few years have been a time of pivotal change and dramatic progress in Tennessee, and our state’s focus on higher education has played a significant role in this advancement. We are experiencing record low unemployment, leading the nation in the growth of student outcomes in K-12 education, and are proud to be home to some of  America’s leading companies, all while retaining the title of the best barbecue in the nation.

While it is an exciting time for the Volunteer State, the rapid pace of change has brought a host of new challenges for higher education.  The growing economy and evolving workforce require our postsecondary institutions to produce skilled learners in greater numbers than ever before.  To meet this need, we have pursued a determined effort to increase postsecondary attainment by launching the Drive to 55—the state’s goal to have fifty-five percent of Tennesseans with a postsecondary degree by 2025.

Reaching the Drive to 55 has required radical policy actions to drive students into the access pipeline and move them toward completion. We became the first state in the nation to offer tuition-free community and technical college to high school graduates via the Tennessee Promise scholarship, an effort that has now served over 50,000 students. Making this program succeed has required a herculean effort from our colleges and universities, and while work remains, we are proud that over half of our Promise students have either graduated or remain enrolled in higher education.

Throughout this effort, we have learned several lessons, most notably that the classic perception of the “traditional” student is increasingly obsolete. The emerging reality is that the typical college student is not the 18-year-old, recent high school graduate living on campus as students in prior generations did.  We now see more first-generation college students engaging as commuter students and working their way throughout college. 

Today’s student is also more likely to be an adult, whether they are entering college for the first time or returning to finish a degree. Our state has recognized the value of adult learners and has invested in a substantial effort to reach them via the Tennessee Reconnect program.  While we are proud of the fact that adults in Tennessee can attend community college tuition-free, we know that it isn’t just about costs.  If we are asking a working mother or veteran to get out of their comfort zone and pursue higher education, we must be willing to expand the traditional definitions of students on our campuses to ensure anyone who enrolls is on a path to success.

At the state level, our policies are often guided by the practices that have seen success on our campuses. The University of Memphis has redefined the adult student college experience with the Finish Line program that combines Prior Learning Assessment, financial aid, and tailored advising to serve those with previous college credits but no degree. Similarly, Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville has fundamentally altered their approach by offering classes and advising services on weekends, utilizing technologies like Skype for communication, and like Memphis, proactively awarding credit for life, educational, and military experience. 

In the midst of these innovations, we must also ensure that our federal policy environment is focused on students, particularly in the realm of financial aid. The most motivated student can be overwhelmed by the process of applying for federal student aid, and simplifying the FASFA is essential to ensure students, particularly first-generation and independent learners, are not at a disadvantage. The primary barrier to enrolling in college should not be the ability to persevere through a 108 question financial aid form, and we eagerly support efforts at the federal level to simplify this process.

The narrative of opportunity in America, and in Tennessee, is one that relies on a pathway for all students, whether they are recent high school graduates or adult learners, to earn a postsecondary credential and enter the workforce ready to succeed. Placing this objective at the center of the college and university enterprise requires new concepts and a willingness to challenge traditional models of higher education. While this can be difficult, it reminds us that the work happening on campuses isn’t abstract, but is an intensely human endeavor that changes lives and has a multi-generational impact on families.

Mike Krause is the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and a member of the Higher Learning Advocates Champions Network.