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Tennessee Education And Workforce Efforts Get An Upgrade

The Tennessee Promise program is providing college opportunity to the state's high school students and creating a stronger workforce.

By Emily McMackin on March 12, 2016

Chattanooga TN
Staff Photo

Tennessee’s efforts to align economic development and its K-12 and higher education systems have accelerated under Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd. The state has gained national acclaim for groundbreaking initiatives such as Tennessee Promise, which offers two years of community college tuition-free to qualifying high school graduates.

The commissioner brings considerable experience in education and workforce issues, including founding the tnAchieves program, a forerunner to Tennessee Promise. When Gov. Bill Haslam signed the groundbreaking Tennessee Promise bill into law, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to offer such a program. The bill guarantees that beginning with the graduating class of 2015, the state will pay the tuition and fees – after financial aid packages are applied – for any Tennessee high school graduate to attend a state community or technical college full time.

The Tennessee Promise is part of Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to boost the percentage of Tennessee residents with a college degree or certifications to 55 percent by the year 2025. “We want Tennesseans working in Tennessee jobs. We want Tennesseans to have an opportunity to get a good job and for those in the workplace to be able to advance and get an even better job,” Haslam says. “Currently in Tennessee, only 32 percent of us have a certificate or degree beyond high school, and studies show that by the year 2025 that number needs to be at least 55 percent for us to keep up with job demand. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

One of the misconceptions is that Tennessee Promise is merely a higher education initiative, when in fact, the program is a workforce development initiative. While the Tennessee Promise program is aimed at high school graduates, other programs, such as Tennessee Reconnect, make it easier for working adults to complete a certificate or degree. The program offers working adults tuition scholarships to attend any of the state’s colleges of applied technology.

Roots in STEM

The program also positions Tennessee to attract more high-tech industries. Many of the STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) credentials needed to fill those high-tech jobs can be achieved at the associate degree or certificate level. The state’s community and technical colleges are continually reviewing their course offerings to make sure they provide students with those skills businesses have said they need and want in employees.

Tennessee Promise is just the latest in a series of programs and initiatives aimed at raising the bar for the state’s educational system. Since the adoption of the Tennessee Diploma Project, which overhauled the state’s high school curriculum, ensuring all students stay on a college preparatory tract, the high school graduation rate in Tennessee has steadily increased each year by an average of more than 1 percent.

The Economic and Community Development Department has played a key role in the state’s Drive to 55 effort, which aims to increase the number of high school students who are ready for college or a career after graduation. The department has fostered collaboration with education providers to keep them updated on emerging industries and jobs and the skill sets employers need from workers.

The state’s Labor Education Alignment Program is one example of how the state promotes collaboration among business, industry, education and government. The program aims to eliminate skills gaps across the state by utilizing regional workforce data to identify them and ensure that higher education institutions are producing graduates with skills that employers need.

The state’s network of community and technical colleges are a key component of its workforce efforts. The state’s commitment to workforce development can be seen in the opening of a new Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) location in Wilson County, where a satellite of the Nashville Career Advancement Center will be housed. The new facility began offering classes in practical nursing and computer technology and is adding advanced manufacturing and logistics technician programs

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