Today is Saturday, August 19, 2017

Education initiatives in full swing

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May is an exciting time across our state as families celebrate graduations, and this time of year reminds me of why we work so hard to make sure Tennesseans are prepared for the workforce. Tennessee's ability to compete economically and recruit business is directly tied to our citizens having the education skills and credentials to succeed in today's global economy.

Two years ago we launched the Drive to 55 to increase the number of Tennesseans with a degree or certificate beyond high school from 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025, and I'm encouraged to report that we're making progress.

The Tennessee Promise, our scholarship and mentoring program that provides last dollar scholarships for graduating high school seniors to attend community or technical college free of tuition and fees, is making a real difference. Based on a forecast by the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research, between 16,000-19,000 students are projected to utilize benefits from the Tennessee Promise this fall.

Because of the Tennessee Promise, our state saw a growth rate of 12 percent in the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Tennessee has comprised 40 percent of the nation's growth in FAFSA filings. With this growth, 48 percent of our applicants will be receiving full Pell grant benefits, demonstrating the Tennessee Promise is appealing to low-income students and is helping them pursue higher education, which they might not have seen a path to do otherwise.

We have also worked to attract Tennessee adults to higher education. This spring, we launched Tennessee Reconnect, a multi-faceted approach focused on adult learners. The first phase of this initiative was the TCAT Reconnect grant, which provides tuition-free attendance at a Tennessee college of applied technology. We launched the program on April 6, and it has attracted almost 11,000 applicants.

In the next phase of the Reconnect initiative, we will be focused on Tennesseans with some college but no degree. Last fall, we began assessing how many adults had dropped out of college with more than half of their degree requirements fulfilled. We found that more than 85,000 former students had done so. We will be actively reaching out to those adults to inform them about our initiatives and assist them in completing their degrees.

One of the hard facts about our performance in education has been that two-thirds of our community college students have required remedial math instruction when entering higher education. We are doing something about that with a program called SAILS.

The Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support program gives students who need extra support in math the attention they need during their senior year in high school, so they can avoid remediation in college.

In 2013, SAILS served 8,400 students, with 66 percent completing all remediation, which saved over $6 million in college tuition. SAILS has now expanded even further, serving nearly 11,000 students. In the second year of operations, SAILS saw an increase in course completion to 89 percent, resulting in a savings in tuition of over $11 million.

The Drive to 55 has overseen the operation of LEAP, the Leveraging Education Assistance Partnership, a grant program that directly links skills our colleges are teaching to current workforce needs in various communities. The program is projected to provide opportunities to nearly 8,000 students.

Veterans' enrollment in Tennessee colleges since 2008 has increased by nearly 200 percent. Our Drive to 55 supports student veterans by exploring the most impactful ways to help veterans succeed in college, applying best practices for serving veterans and launching the Tennessee Veteran Reconnect grant, which provides funds to colleges and universities to develop ways to increase veteran success.

There is still more to come for Drive to 55. For example, this fall the University of Tennessee at Knoxville will launch the first massive open online course (MOOC) in the state, which is expected to serve about 4,000 students.

We have heard over and over from employers across the state about the need for a skilled workforce to meet the demands of the modern workplace. We are excited about the progress we're making. Our goal is to ensure that Tennesseans have the education, training and skills necessary to have a good-paying, high-quality job.

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