June 19, 2017
By Amy Beth Miller
For more adults to complete education beyond high school, East Tennessee needs to raise awareness of opportunities and help adult students balance school and life, a nonprofit advocacy group says.
In a report issued Monday, Complete Tennessee says the region including Blount and 15 other counties has ample education opportunities but faces challenges such as a lack of a college-going culture in rural areas and students not understanding the career options available.
Statewide, the report cites four main obstacles to reaching Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55, the goal for 55 percent of adults to have a college degree or postsecondary credential by 2025:
- Barriers to access, from a lack of options to inadequate transportation;
- Insufficient early postsecondary education and training opportunities;
- Inadequate student support; and
- Misalignment between education and workforce needs.
However the report notes differences among Tennessee’s nine economic development regions and outlines the challenges in each based on a statewide “listening tour,” which included discussions with community leaders, public forums including business and education stakeholders and surveys.
In Tennessee, 38.7 percent of adults had a postsecondary degree or credential by 2015, but in the East Region the numbers range from a low of about 19 percent in Morgan and Union counties to a high of nearly half in Knox County. Blount County ranks second in the region, at 37.8 percent, followed by Loudon County at 37 percent and Anderson at 35.8 percent.
Similarly, the number of high school graduates continuing on to college ranges from 43.1 percent in Monroe County to nearly 70 percent in Knox County, and Blount County at 64.6 percent.
The East Region has “ample opportunities,” the report says, with more than a dozen postsecondary campuses, but high school graduates and adults need to realize the workplace opportunities and career pathways that they can follow.
The next step for Complete Tennessee will be to work with local communities on “completion strategies” to address the challenges. In the East Region, options already raised include:
Increasing partnerships with K-12 schools to show students the value of a higher education at an early age, and to provide work-based learning and other experiences that show career options in the region; and Providing support services for adult students, such as child care and elder care.
Local school districts have been increasing their work-based learning programs, and last year the Blount County campus of Pellissippi State Community College announced a pilot program to help students with child care.
Programs such as the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect programs, which provide last-dollar scholarships to attend community and technical colleges, don’t solve all the problems. For example, students still need to cover book costs, and adults may lose wages if they take time to attend classes. “We know that completion rates are tied to income,” Dr. Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, said during a conference call with reporters Monday.
In particular, low-income, first-generation and adult students face “outside-of-the-classroom” challenges, the report notes. When higher education is a new environment, they may not understand the “hidden curriculum” of expectations or terms regularly used, such as FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. One university president who was helping her own child enter college noted, “We in higher education speak a different language,” Lovett said.
Complete Tennessee also notes the need to coordinate education with workforce demands and to have employers support the long-term gains of increased education. In some regions, employers noted a problem of graduates not having the “soft skills” needed to be successful at work, such as the ability to communicate well and work in teams.
In areas such as Nashville, Lovett said, some employers are not requiring a high school diploma for jobs that pay $18 an hour. “Long-term, that’s not in the best interest of that student, the employer or the community,” he said. Increasing postsecondary attainment increases household income as well as state and local tax revenue.
Lovett said the group is very encouraged by the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative, aimed at doubling the number of residents with a postsecondary degree or credential over the next decade. The 10 strategies under the program start at birth, proving families information about infant health and development, and go all the way through connecting adults with grants and scholarships to further their education.