December 15, 2017
The Daily Times: Pellissippi State Community College, Maryville College working to recruit, retain, graduate to success
By Amy Beth Miller
Local colleges already are working on statewide higher education issues identified in a report released this week.
Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit advocacy group, focuses on three barriers in its second annual state of higher education report, “Beneath the Surface,” low postsecondary graduation rates, equity gaps and a weak school-to-work pipeline.
For the state to reach its “Drive to 55” goal of more than half of the adults earning a college degree or credential by 2025, more people will need to attend and complete college, the report says, and a clear pathway from college to career is key to the state’s economic future.
“Recent gains in college attainment and completion rates have not equally benefitted all Tennesseans,” the report notes.
Across the state, adult enrollment has been declining, and both low-income and African-American students have lower graduation rates than other students.
“We have to find a way to close those equity gaps,” Dr. Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, said in a news briefing Tuesday.
Enrolling more adults
Between 2011 and 2015, adult enrollment in Tennessee’s public and private higher education institutions fell by 25 percent, and the enrollment rates of African-American students fell by 12 percent.
Lovett noted the success of Pellissippi State Community College in increasing adult enrollment this year.
This fall enrollment Pellissippi State is up 9 percent, and the community college has its highest adult enrollment since 2013.
One big factor is the college funded Reconnect Now scholarship for qualified adults. Next fall a state-funded Reconnect scholarship will be available at community colleges across the state.
At Maryville College, one of the ways it has reached out to adult students is a new Military Student Center to support veterans and their dependents, opened in 2015.
Once students enroll in postsecondary programs, Tennessee’s retention rate is lower than the national average, although it has been rising.
The report released Wednesday calls on postsecondary institutions to offer more support for low-income students and students of color.
Statewide the Tennessee Promise program, which offers scholarships and mentoring, has significantly increased retention of students. From fall 2015 to fall 2016, 63 percent of Tennessee Promise students re-enrolled, compared with 42 percent of student not in the program.
That is one of the reasons a large group of more than 500 students are graduating from Pellissippi State this week, noted the college’s president, Dr. Anthony Wise.
Low-income student students face issues beyond paying for tuition, and Pellissippi State offers support ranging from scholarships to cover book costs to a food pantry.
It also started a pilot Leg-Up Child Care Assistance Program for students on the Blount County campus, funded by a grant from the Tennessee Department of Human Services.
“The response this fall has been overwhelming,” Wise said, with a growing number of students interested in the assistance.
“We’re really looking at the holistic needs of our students,” he said.
The college also has found it can dramatically increase students’ success when it offers remedial academic help while students complete college-level work.
Maryville College, where almost half of the students qualify for federal Pell Grants, also sees the challenges low-income students face.
What may seem like a small situation can be the last straw for a struggling student, said Dr. Tom Bogart, Maryville College president.
For students who are working not only to pay for their education but to help support families, a health problem or job loss in the family can be devastating.
Financial, academic and mental health support all matter to struggling students, Bogart said.
Pathways to careers
“Early exposure to careers and meaningful job experiences can be instrumental to closing equity gaps,” the report says, noting that at every level of education, African Americans in Tennessee have higher levels of unemployment.
College completion rates are higher for students who experience internships, Lovett said.
“We’re asking our institutions to connect better with employers,” he said.
While the report says few universities are addressing the state’s shortage of workers in key fields, Pellissippi State has been working closely with local employers, school districts and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in developing programs for advanced manufacturing.
It has developed a career pathway starting in the freshmen year of high school, and Wise said they hope to have an announcement early next year regarding a new facility planned for the Blount County campus.
Pellissippi State also has a Purpose First initiative, which includes having in-depth conversations with students about their career goals as they enter college, and it has reorganized its curriculum to provide a clear pathway for students.
Lovett said internships and other work-based learning opportunities are particularly important for low-income students and students of color to make connections that can later benefit them in finding work.
“Their networks may not be as broad or advanced,” he explained.
The Maryville College Works program also ensures students begin thinking about their careers as they enter higher education.
“Every single college has a career center,” Bogart said. “We require you to go there starting your freshman year.”
Networking events give students practice interacting with employers, learning about the workplace needs and sharing their own interests.
Offering a career center without training, he said, “It’s like telling somebody who doesn’t know how to read, ‘There’s the library. Go use it.’”
Under the Maryville College Works program, by the time students graduate they will have completed an internship or other practical work experience, and they will be able to explain to employers how their education has prepared them for a career.