KINGSPORT — Improving Tennessee’s college graduation rates will require work from schools, communities, businesses and ultimately a commitment on the part of individual students, the president of East Tennessee State University said Monday.
Around 22 percent of Tennesseans have baccalaureate degrees, and only 19 percent of high school graduates today complete a college degree, said Brian Noland, president of ETSU.
The key to changing those numbers is changing the culture of expectations, Noland said.
“Because for so long a high school degree was good enough for our parents, but now the high school degree is simply a starting block of a lifetime of educational investments,” Noland said.
The Complete College Tennessee Act, passed a few years ago, the HOPE Lottery Scholarship and programs like TRIO and Upward Bound all factor into college success, but at some point finishing college is the student’s responsibility and requires families placing importance on higher education, Noland said.
“We’re above the national average when it comes to high school completion but when students move to post-secondary education things begin to, for whatever reason, lose track with national averages,” Noland said.
Noland was the keynote speaker Monday at the second and final day of the 2012 Tennessee Valley Corridor partnership event held in Kingsport at the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center.
Monday included a panel on higher education moderated by Noland, who provided figures and statistics related to higher education in Tennessee.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the state was funding about 60 percent of every dollar spent on supporting public higher education, with students making up the remainder. Ten years later, the state only funds around 46 percent.
Noland said the trend in states around the South has been to shift the burden of higher education to the student.
Even with the decline in state appropriations, the state funds higher education for each student at around $5,700. This helps schools pay the bills. For each student who attends public school in Tennessee, around $13,500 is required for operations.
Noland said the important thing to remember, though, is that students on the margin are the least likely to be able to afford the increase in tuition and fees.
The average student in Tennessee borrows in excess of $4,500 per year while in school. Students have an average of around $20,000 in debt upon graduation, but Noland said that was debt that will provide a long-term return. Still, though, the amount of borrowing is something to watch, he said.
From a trend perspective, the numbers Tennessee has are not all that dissimilar from national numbers, Noland said.
“Our focus as a nation all the way through the 1990s was to ensure that more students graduated from high school,” he said. “And if you look at the progress we’ve made in improving high school graduation rates we’ve done admirable work. There’s still a lot to do. But we’ve begun to achieve that goal of ensuring essentially universal access and universal completion of high school.
“Our challenge now is moving to post-secondary education.”
This is important because the world has changed so that most jobs require more than a high school diploma, Noland said.
A bachelor’s degree is not the only option, though. Community colleges and technical schools are valid options for post-secondary education, as well, Noland said.
University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro was in attendance at Monday’s event. He said part of the reason why only 22 percent of Tennesseans possess a bachelor’s degree when the national average is around 30 percent has to do with expectations that manufacturing jobs are available like they were years ago. That is not the case now and those that are available require some kind of education beyond high school.
“UT, like all universities, is very interested in work force preparedness and the ability to provide a product, that being a graduate, that is work force ready, and taking a look at the issues around how you do that and how you produce a student that companies and other businesses, they are meeting their needs and doing great work for them is a key component of who we are,” DiPietro said.
He also said universities should be talking with businesses and the community to find out what problems exist and how the university can help solve those problems.
Noland said while students and families need to place importance on higher education, there are things businesses can do too.
“I think what business and industry can do to help is to set the expectation that they value skills within their work force, to provide opportunities for individuals who work within their industries, be it health care, be it the chemical industry, be it Oak Ridge, to give those employees the opportunities they need to come back and complete their degree,” Noland said.