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A more educated state: Officials want higher number of college grads

January 12, 2015

by John Carney
Shelbyville Times-Gazette (used by permission)

On Friday, the very day when President Obama announced a plan to provide free community college tuition nationwide, attendees at the annual Motlow State Community College legislative briefing discussed the impact that Tennessee Promise, which was one of the inspirations for Obama's proposal, will have on the Volunteer State.

"We're all wondering what that will bring," said Motlow President Dr. MaryLou Apple, "but we're preparing for that."

State Sen. Jim Tracy said that, for the first time in his 11 years in the state legislature, "We're all on the same page in higher education."

State leaders meet at Legislative Breakfast
Members of the Tennessee State Legislature and Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) recently met at Motlow College's annual Legislative Breakfast to discuss issues such as the Drive to 55 initiative and Tennessee Promise. The state leaders were joined by members of Motlow's faculty, staff, administration, and student body on the Moore County campus. Pictured, from left; State Rep. Kevin Dunlap, 43rd District; State Sen. Janice Bowling, 16th District; State Sen. Jim Tracy, 14th District; David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration and facilities development for TBR; Dr. MaryLou Apple, president of Motlow College; Jim Apple; Fran Marcum, TBR Regent, 4th District; State Rep. Pat Marsh, 62nd District; State Rep. Judd Matheny, 47th District; State Rep. David Alexander, 39th District; and Jerry Cooper, former state senator.
Shelbyville Mayor Wallace Cartwright, City Treasurer Jamey Owen, Shelbyville & Bedford County Chamber of Commerce CEO Allen Pitner, and Tennessee College of Applied Technology--Shelbyville (TCAT-S) director Ivan Jones were among those in attendance, while Tracy and State Rep. Pat Marsh were among the participating legislators.

A Motlow student from Shelbyville, Antwain Dobbins, was recognized during the meeting as a returning veteran now seeking to further his education.

"We want to work more with our veterans," said Apple.

Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill giving even out-of-state returning veterans free in-state tuition as long as they enroll within two years of their discharge and are eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

David Gregory, TBR vice-chancellor for administration and facilities management, in his report discussed the goals for increasing the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees under Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative.

The goal is to increase the annual number of degrees from 27,499 in the 2009-2010 academic year to 43,202 in the 2024-25 academic year. So far, according to a chart Gregory handed out, the numbers are running ahead of each year's goal.

Gregory said colleges must do a better job of holding on to existing students. In the old days, it was almost a point of pride for college professors to tell incoming freshmen to look to their left and to their right, saying that only one in three students would make it all the way to a diploma.

But Gregory said that now, academic institutions must work harder to keep students in the system. First-generation college students tend to be unprepared in reading and math, he noted, and special efforts are being made to help those students.

Apple noted during her report that the Motlow College Foundation has created a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) endowment to help promote interest in the sciences at a middle-school level, so that students will be better prepared through high school and going into college.

Sometimes, there are more practical challenges for students attempting to improve themselves. Apple noted that the college sometimes encounters students who literally can't afford the gasoline to come to class that day, or who need help with minor expenses such as meals on campus.

State Rep. Kevin Dunlap, who represents Grundy, White and parts of Warren counties, was the only Democratic legislator participating in the breakfast; he said that reaching out to include children from poor or uneducated backgrounds is an investment which saves money in the long run by reducing crime and incarceration.

"It will cost us more in the long run if we don't make those hard decisions," said Dunlap.

Several legislators, however, noted the challenges faced by the state in a tight budget year -- and this has been one in a series of tight budget years for Tennessee government.

"When we've cut, we've tried to cut intelligently," said State Rep. David Alexander, who represents, Franklin, Moore and parts of Marion counties.

State Rep. Judd Matheny, who represents Coffee County and parts of Warren County, said that state departments have been asked to prepare for 7 percent budget cuts, although he's hoping that only 2 or 3 percent cuts will be made.

Gregory noted that the first students to qualify for free community college or TCAT tuition under Tennessee Promise will enter school this fall. He said 92 percent of high school students have filled out the application form for Tennessee Promise.

"Don't get too enamored of that number," warned Gregory; in some cases, schools have been requiring that all students complete the application, and some of those students will end up going directly to four-year colleges or won't follow up on their applications.

But Gregory said even the application process is of benefit because it causes students and parents to have a conversation about higher education.

Marsh, noting that he has volunteered as a Tennessee Promise mentor, later said he was assigned six students to advise, and two haven't returned his messages.

Marsh called Tennessee Promise "one of the best bills" he's been involved with during his time in the General Assembly.

"Education, to me, is one of the most important things we do in state government," said Tracy. "It is the most important thing we do in state government."

Numerous speakers, including Gregory, took the time to acknowledge Apple, who will be retiring at the end of the school year.

The annual breakfast, one of a series of meetings held at Tennessee Board of Regents institutions across the state, gives TBR a chance to report on its needs and accomplishments to state legislators and state legislators a chance to talk about what they're doing in Nashville as it relates to education and economic development. The meetings are attended by area officials as well as Motlow students.

Gregory said the meeting at Motlow is generally the best-attended of those TBR organizes statewide.