The NCSL Blog


By Andrew Smalley 

Nashville—As state legislators seek to boost postsecondary credential attainment, many states have looked to Tennessee as a model for improving student attainment outcomes and modifying higher education governance.

From left, Associate Commissioner of Workforce Services Kenyatta Lovett; Representative Mark White (R), Senator Dolores Gresham (R); University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd and NCSL Program Principal Ben Boggs.At the Legislative Summit in Nashville, NCSL Education Program Principal Ben Boggs moderated a panel discussion among Tennessee legislators and higher education leaders that focused on the state’s recent and notable higher education reforms. (The session was livestreamed and may be viewed on NCSL’s Facebook page.)

The impetus for Tennessee’s efforts was a series of reports from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce which showed a grim outlook for the state’s education and workforce future.

“We weren’t producing enough quality graduates to support the current and future economic and workforce needs of our state,” Tennessee Senator Dolores Gresham (R) said. “What had been the model for incentivizing and funding higher education for decades was not working. We were failing.”

These reports propelled a bipartisan coalition of legislators and policy stakeholders to search for new approaches to higher education in the state. One potential answer emerged from the Knox Achieves program that allowed students in Knox County to attend local community and technical colleges for free with a last-dollar scholarship supported by local nonprofits and businesses leaders.

University of Tennessee Interim President Randy Boyd was an early supporter of the program as a business leader and as higher education advisor to then-Governor Bill Haslam (R).

“We said we will give you a last-dollar scholarship and match you with a mentor, a volunteer from the community to make sure you’re successful, because it’s not just about getting into college, it’s about getting out,” Boyd said. “This mentorship program has been critical to the success of the program.”

Over the next several years, Knox Achieves and other similar pilot programs would expand across the state and become the precursors to the Tennessee Promise Program, which was created statewide in 2014.

“A lot of folks are looking at trying to pass new legislation and do this instantly, but this was something that took a long period of time,” Boyd said.

The state also created the Tennessee Reconnect program to provide last-dollar scholarships specifically to adult learners.

“It is impossible to get to your state’s workforce goals without getting adults back into the postsecondary education system,” Boyd said.

These programs came on the heels of the 2010 Complete College Tennessee Act, which established a comprehensive, outcomes-based funding formula for the state’s higher education institutions.

“Everything we talk about with programming is not just about getting in, which is important. But we have a conversation about how many students are actually graduating and getting into jobs,” Associate Commissioner of Workforce Services Kenyatta Lovett said.

The state’s efforts to educate a next-generation workforce have not remained confined to higher education.

“From a legislative perspective, once you start going down this road, you find that K-12 and higher education are intertwined,” Representative Mark White (R) said. “Our two-year and four-year institutions are aligning curriculum with K-12 and our teacher prep programs.”

Looking ahead, state leaders are focusing on continuing to increase access and affordability.

“The needs for our students of color and low-income students are way beyond tuition,” Lovett said. “Once you start to talk about outcomes, you have to deal with equity.” 

Tennessee lawmakers and stakeholders also urged breaking down silos and promoting collaboration across the higher education system to encourage student success.

“Every stakeholder in the process has an interest in seeing that every student who enters a higher education pipeline, persists until they have the postsecondary credential they are looking for,” Gresham said. “We all want our students to succeed.”

Andrew Smalley is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.