East Tennessee State University Student Mary Wise said the benefits of a college degree include a chance at a better career, job stability and a better impression presented to potential employers and the community.
“I think it just creates confidence in just who you are as a person and what you offer to society,” said Wise, a nursing major who was sitting on a bench on the ETSU campus Tuesday morning, reading.
With Gov. Bill Haslam’s new Drive to 55 campaign aimed at increasing the percentage of Tennesseans with post-secondary education to 55 percent by 2025, ETSU educators, administrators and other staff have a significant challenge in the coming years, especially in light of the school’s decline in enrollment this year, to show others what Wise already thinks.
President Brian Noland said the Drive to 55 initiative means an increase in graduates of 8 percent every year for ETSU to help create the 494,000 more degree or certificate holders needed in this state to get 55 percent of the population better educated to compete for jobs.
To put that into perspective, Noland said to imagine a typical major football stadium filled to capacity five times over.
“I applaud the governor for setting a big goal,” he said.
In the area served by ETSU, that is the immediate geography surrounding the institution that could be considered under its educational influence, bachelor’s degrees range from in the single digits percentage-wise in one county to more than 30 percent in Washington County. Noland pointed out that 85 percent of the people within 100 miles of ETSU who have a bachelor’s degree obtained that degree from the university.
So if the number of bachelor’s degree holders is increased in this region, it stands to reason ETSU will be a leader in providing them.
Getting to 55 percent on average in a little more than a decade, though, is going to take work. Hard work.
“We’re going to have to grow our enrollment to produce an 8 percent increase in graduates ... we’re going to simply have to enroll more people,” Noland said. “It’s enrollment growth across the board.”
ETSU’s fall enrollment was down by 447 students, administrators announced Tuesday morning. There are now 14,957 students at ETSU. This figure includes undergraduate and graduate students, as well as students and residents from the James H. Quillen College of Medicine and the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, and represents an overall decrease from the fall 2012 enrollment of 15,404.
According to ETSU, the number of new freshmen and undergraduate transfers decreased from the previous fall semester, dropping by 199 students and 59 students, respectively. Though overall numbers are down, ETSU witnessed a 5 percent increase in online course enrollment, as well as growth in the number of high school students participating in the dual enrollment program.
Noland has said publicly he thinks 18,000 students could be enrolled at ETSU by the end of the decade, and that he and others will look closely at how to accomplish that goal.
Speaking in broad terms, what administrators will try to do is do more marketing to establish more of a visual identity for the school.
Strengthening ETSU’s relationships with high schools across this region and state is another way the school is seeking to grow enrollment.
Why is enrollment down right now, though?
Part of it has to do with the economy, birth rates and the number of high school graduates in the region, but another piece is retention. Noland said ETSU’s retention rate has dropped 6 percent since 2006.
“That to me is campus engagement,” Noland said. “What it says to me is we have to create a dynamic out of the classroom that is as engaging as the dynamic our faculty created for them (students) inside the classroom.”
So how do you ensure students want to stay at ETSU?
The answer to that question has many parts. Noland said it will take effort from housing and residence life, career counseling, crisis counseling, academic advisement and even food services to ensure students stay at ETSU and complete their degree programs.
“If we’re going to be serious about creating an environment, we have to look at all the variables that are touched on by the web of engagement,” Noland said.
But most of that stuff helps traditional students — students who are between the ages of 18 and 22 and who are already on campus.
What about getting young potential students on campus in the first place or encouraging older Tennesseans to return to complete that degree they started but never earned?
ETSU prepares many of the teachers in the region. These teachers will be using Common Core standards this year that are intended to prepare students for college rather than the previous TCAP assessment preparation curriculum, and those standards should play a huge role in ensuring more students seek something beyond high school, Noland said.
And the school also plays a role in ensuring more people move on to something beyond secondary education through programs like TRIO, which are services offered to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These programs help students stay in college or prepare them for college work.
Additionally, transfer agreements between local community colleges, degree-finishing programs and online courses are all part of the puzzle when it comes to figuring out how to increase the number of graduates produced, Noland said.
Noland said today’s economy is based on knowledge, and that reality requires most job seekers to have more than a high school education, be it a welding certificate or a doctorate in microbiology.
Angela Dugger, an ETSU sophomore English major who hopes to be a college professor, seemed to understand that knowledge economy Noland mentioned.
“I think it’s important to go to college, because, you know, in this day and age it’s very, very hard to make a decent living if you don’t go to college,” Dugger said. “Everybody wants you to have some sort of degree because they want you to have some sort of knowledge of what you’re doing.”