Tennessee’s Drive to 55 seeks to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025 – an ambitious goal that is well within reach, thanks to initiatives like Tennessee Promise, which provides graduating high school seniors with free tuition for two years at a community college or college of applied technology.
Nowhere is this push more evident than in Maury County, where dozens of specially trained volunteer mentors are helping prospective students transition from high school to college, and where higher education institutions like Columbia State Community College are finding ways to provide students with broader access to the tools and knowledge they need to succeed.
Tuition costs are typically the greatest barrier to a college education, but navigating the admissions and financial aid process can also be daunting. Tennessee Promise takes care of the financial issue, while the nonprofit tnAchieves pairs first-generation college students with mentors who help ensure they meet all requirements, which include completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and eight hours of community service. Mentorship is at the heart of the initiative, says tnAchieves director of community partnerships Graham Thomas, and the combination of free tuition and assistance from mentors makes the program effective.
“A study the University of Tennessee put together for us revealed that a last-dollar scholarship or mentorship increases a student’s likelihood of going to college by about 5 percent,” Thomas says. “When these are paired together, the students we work with are 21 percent more likely to go to college than their statistical peers.”
Notably, 108 Maury County residents signed up for and completed the mentorship training program this year, easily exceeding the state's goal of 72. One of those mentors is Wes Kelley, executive director of Columbia Power & Water Systems. Kelley will mentor six students in 2015.
“We want to make sure that every student has someone who can help them think through issues and be a sounding board," Kelley says. "The college admissions process can be very intimidating, especially for students who come from a family environment where post-secondary education is not the norm.”
Distance Learning Programs Expand
New videoconferencing technology introduced at Columbia State is also promising to dramatically increase the access students have to degree and certificate programs at the college. Funded by a Rural Utilities Service Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant, the technology allows any student equipped with a computer and Web connection to attend classes remotely, while engaging with professors and classmates in real time. Columbia State began utilizing the system in early 2015, with a wider rollout planned for summer and fall.
“This will also allow Columbia State to offer additional classes to serve students who live far away from campus locations and support students who choose to attend class from a more convenient location,” says Marilia Gerges, director of instructional support, distance learning and university services at the college.
Videoconferencing will also allow more high school students to take courses, and permit workers to participate in training classes while on the job.
“The technology not only responds to the learning style of this generation; it saves time and travel expenses," Gerges says. "It’s a win-win for everyone."
STEM, Online Degree Opportunities
Columbia State will also enhance its focus on educating students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math with the help of a $45,000 NASA grant that provides scholarships to women and other underrepresented students enrolled in select science, technology and math degree and certificate programs. The goal is to increase the number of female students at Columbia State pursuing those disciplines. A new partnership with Western Governors University Tennessee will also allow graduates and staff of Columbia State to transfer and apply their earned credits toward a bachelor’s degree in business, education, information technology or nursing through the online university.
WGU is tailored for working students, offering discounted tuition, flexible classes and 24/7 access to course materials, along with a competency-based approach that allows students to advance quickly through programs by demonstrating mastery of course materials. Columbia State’s Center for Workforce Development is also helping students gain critical skills through its new online medical coding course and a summer boot camp that teaches them how to use programmable logic controllers (PLCs) – digital computers used across industries to automate electromechanical processes used to control machinery, assembly lines and more.
All of these initiatives are contributing to a larger county-wide effort to build a capable, smart workforce for the future and provide employers with the skilled workers they need to compete globally. As tnAchieves mentor Kelley puts it, "our education system is critical for this community to be successful long-term."
Read more about Maury County's high-tech education.