April 12, 2017
By Jennifer Pignolet
Southwest Tennessee Community College President Tracy Hall recently toured classrooms of students in the Shelby County juvenile justice system.
She saw rows of black young men who spoke of aspirations ranging from professional athlete to engineer. But all admitted their current situation wasn't going to help them get there.
"It was the most depressing day I've had here in Memphis," Hall told a room full of local education, workforce and government leaders Wednesday. They came together Downtown for a listening session with Complete Tennessee, a statewide nonprofit group with the goal of increasing college completion.
In Tennessee, three out of four students who enroll in a community college do not complete a degree, according to Complete Tennessee's first comprehensive report of college completion in the state. Half of public university students don't graduate in six years. Only one in 20 African-American students earn a community college degree in three years.
The issue persists as Gov. Bill Haslam continues to push for increased college enrollment as part of Drive to 55, his initiative to arm 55 percent of Tennessee residents with a post-secondary degree by 2025. For that to happen, 90,000 more students in West Tennessee need to earn a college degree or work certificate.
Hall said she worries little about competition from other colleges and universities.
"We do have competition from the streets," she said. "And until we have that conversation, we will never move the needle."
"More than money"
LeMoyne-Owen College President Andrea Miller said finances are often talked about as a barrier to a college education, but life events are the most common reason students don't stay in school.
"We're finding out that a lot of our students have gone through a lot of trauma," she said, adding that faculty aren't always able to identify the true reasons a student may not be paying attention or showing up to class at all.
"They need a whole lot more than money," she said.
Hall said working around students' work schedules can also be a problem. When they have to choose between a job and school, they have to choose a job.
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald said he's concerned for small businesses that have to balance wanting their employees to earn degrees and needing them to work.
"How does that company have the opportunity, when they're so thinly staffed, to stop what they're doing and do this other thing?" McDonald said. "It's a question I don't have the answer to."
Kevin Woods, executive director of the Workforce Investment Network and a Shelby County Schools board member, said the education community has to be honest with students about the kinds of jobs that are available and have the most earning potential. Too frequently, he said, students spend a semester or more trying out different majors, and losing time and money in the process.
"We want to make sure we're providing the labor market data to inform these young people," Woods said.
Hall said her most successful program is intense mentoring for African-American men.
"If students aren't attending classes, their advisers know," Hall said. But it's an expensive program to take to scale, she said.
At Christian Brothers University, President John Smarrelli said the key to retention on his campus, particularly among Latino students, is student activity groups.
"What's created is a culture of engagement," he said.
Complete Tennessee will release a report summarizing the listening sessions done in nine locations across the state.
Executive Director Kenyatta Lovett said Memphis is not new to many of the issues around college readiness and completion, so he expected a healthy discussion.
"This has probably been the most complete pipeline conversation" of the nine cities, he said.