June 28, 2017
The Tennessean: 4 reasons Tennessee students struggle to finish college
By Dr. Kenyatta Lovett
Tennessee’s higher education system is failing too many students.
The average graduation rate for our colleges and universities is below 50 percent, and some institutions graduate fewer than 15 percent of their students. Despite our state’s reputation as a leader in education reform, our postsecondary performance is falling short.
To better understand the diverse challenges facing current and prospective students, the nonprofit education advocacy organization Complete Tennessee launched a statewide listening tour at the start of 2017. We spent the first half of the year traveling to all nine economic development regions, meeting with and listening to hundreds of stakeholders and community leaders.
Our discussions centered on one fundamental question: Why aren’t more Tennessee students graduating from college?
At each meeting, a diverse set community members offered insightful feedback on the causes and consequences of low college completion and degree attainment rates in their respective regions. The conversations were at once eye-opening, heartbreaking and thought-provoking.
After months of discussion and research, Complete Tennessee has identified four significant barriers to postsecondary success that require immediate attention.
First, access remains a persistent issue for many Tennesseans.
In recent years, the state has invested heavily in reducing and even eliminating postsecondary tuition. However, tuition is only part of the college access equation. In both rural and urban regions, lack of adequate and affordable transportation was a key concern for prospective students.
In the Upper Cumberland region, students struggle with limited postsecondary options, and in Memphis, socioeconomic hurdles were at the forefront. We must explore policies and practices to help address these problems in order to successfully raise college attainment rates across the state.
Second, students need more timely college and career preparation.
Community, education, and business leaders expressed near universal concern about students’ limited understanding of local career opportunities and the postsecondary credentials necessary to qualify for these jobs. The Tennessee Department of Education is working to help high-school students access work-based learning experiences and dual-enrollment opportunities.
However, local school districts need engagement from community and industry leaders to effectively support postsecondary education and career readiness.
Third, support services are critical — especially for low-income and first-generation students.
Roundtable participants repeatedly acknowledged the fact that challenges outside the classroom, including family and work obligations, can significantly affect academic performance. Postsecondary students — especially low-income, first-generation and adult returning students — could benefit from wrap-around support services, such as child care, tutoring, and counseling.
Community-developed public services and nonprofit programs should partner with postsecondary institutions to help address the non-academic issues facing students.
Finally, successfully aligning education programs with employer needs remains a major issue.
It isn’t enough for students to graduate with credentials; the credentials need to be relevant to the local workforce. This requires enhanced collaboration between employers and postsecondary institutions. If degree programs cannot match student outcomes to labor needs, both the postsecondary success rate and the state’s economic prosperity are jeopardized.
By asking regional stakeholders to openly explore factors that affect college completion and degree attainment in their unique communities, Complete Tennessee sparked a statewide conversation that forces us to rethink our collective understanding of successes and failures of Tennessee’s higher-education system.
Just as our students are diverse, so too are the challenges they face. Addressing the barriers to postsecondary progress in our state will require the voices of many and the participation of all. Only then can we truly advance the state’s ambitious Drive to 55 goal to ensure more Tennesseans have the chance to earn a degree that will open the doors to increased economic mobility, enhanced community engagement, and a better quality of life.
Kenyatta Lovett serves as the executive director of Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit education advocacy organization focused on increasing postsecondary access and completion in Tennessee.