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Front Page - Friday, June 9, 2017

State’s drive for better-educated workforce

Economic development officials will always list a well-trained workforce as a must-have for any area – be it city, county, region or state – looking to recruit and retain employees for business.

With that in mind, Tennessee has become the nation’s first state to offer two-year university scholarships to all adult residents.

Four years after he launched Drive to 55 to boost Tennessee’s degree and certificate-holding population, Gov. Bill Haslam is about to find out if his big push is working.

The Drive to 55 program kicked off in earnest with Tennessee Promise, a lottery-funded scholarship program for high-school students that would cover two years of tuition at one of the state’s community colleges or technical centers.

Tennessee Reconnect is a similar program for adult learners who wish to obtain or finish a degree. There are an estimated 900,000 individuals who fall into that category.

As the state continues its aggressive approach to expanding higher education, the two programs, it’s hoped, will groom a supply of well-trained employees for a variety of industries the state is hoping to lure in or keep, officials say.

“What sometimes gets lost in the conversation is that the goal is 55 percent with a degree or credential – we’re not talking about just associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, but anything from a HVAC-repair certification to a cosmetology license,” explains Kate Derrick, director of external relations for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“It all counts.”

The first batch of Tennessee Promise candidates is graduating, or soon will, and with Tennessee Reconnect ready to launch, colleges and universities have been doing their homework with two-year schools and four-year schools working in tandem.

“We knew we’d need more flexibility around adult learners, so we spent some time looking at what that would be,” says Jessica Gibson, assistant executive director for adult learner initiatives. “The initiative included a lot of data and research around outreach to adult learners, as well as support in terms of financial aid.

“We worked with our institutions to really help them build more capacity to serve adults, and we’re also looking at new ways to build partnerships with employers and workforce agencies around increased education attainment for adults. And lastly, we are engaging with the community in many ways.”

The state also has rolled out the Drive to 55 Capacity Fund, an initiative to support campuses as they continue to see new students as part of Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect.

Last November, the fund awarded $24.3 million to 10 colleges and universities around the state, funding everything from a new training facility in Anderson County through the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Knoxville to an advanced robotics training facility for Motlow State Community College and an expansion of the nursing program at Dyersburg State Community College.

As enrollment rises in the coming years, more work will be done to ensure that those students who wish to continue their education at a four-year institution can do so, in addition to helping those whose goal is an associate’s degree or certificate also achieve success, Derrick says.

“We want to make sure all the campuses getting students can scale out and grow with the opportunity,” she adds. “There was a lot of interest, and many applicants, in the Drive to 55 Capacity Fund. That kind of competition is a good problem to have.

“For us, Tennessee Promise so far has been a best-case scenario, and we are eager to see how well Tennessee Reconnect does, as well.”