June 19, 2017
By Rachel Ohm
Students from rural counties in East Tennessee have limited awareness of the post-secondary opportunities available to them, despite living in a region with several colleges and the state's flagship University of Tennessee Knoxville, according to a new report.
The report, released Monday by education advocacy group Complete Tennessee, looks at the barriers facing current and future post-secondary students in Tennessee and is based off round table discussions in nine economic regions of the state.
It states that there is a "startling gap" in college attainment rates between students that come from Knoxville and students from nearby rural areas, and that there is a general lack of awareness around post-secondary options in East Tennessee.
Disparity in college-going rates
While the average college-going rate in East Tennessee is 59 percent, that number varies greatly between Knox County and outlying rural areas.
Forty-three percent of high school graduates in Monroe County attend college, while that percentage is as high as 70 percent in Knox County, the report said.
The report states that across Tennessee "much work lies ahead" in addressing the common challenges of college affordability, career preparation and the need for stronger relationships between colleges and community organizations and workplaces.
"We are very concerned about how Knox County can look at this regionally and make sure they’re spreading resources enough to support those surrounding counties," said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee.
"The reality is, those counties outside of Knox County are supporting the workforce that’s driving the Knoxville economy, so the better the attainment rate for those other counties, the more it’s an attractive space for employers."
Shelby and Davidson counties, which are also home to large metro areas, also exhibited similar trends, he said, and it is important state-wide that metro areas work to address college attainment in surrounding counties.
Finding a solution
The organization is planning to come up with completion strategies in each region moving forward, though no timeline has been set yet.
The report builds upon the "Room to Grow" report released by Complete Tennessee in November highlighting major challenges in post-secondary outcomes. The listening tour used to compile the most recent report is a second phase intended to foster community engagement and take a regional look at barriers to education.
Four major questions were posed to each region: What are the barriers in your community to completion or attainment?; What resources are present or needed to make sure all students can complete their education in a timely manner?; What are we doing about adult education?; and What are we doing with labor alignment? Are employers finding the right graduates they need to fill their pipeline?
"What we learned is regional differences do matter," Lovett said. "Everyone had a different set of concerns and while some may be common, there were also those that were unique to each area."