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Adult Learners Fuel Tennessee's "Drive to 55"

by Joey Leonard - February 07, 2014

Every state wants to boast the nation’s most prepared workforce. This distinction draws new business and industry to that state, resulting in economic prosperity. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has set a goal of providing a 55% post-secondary credentialed workforce by 2025 in order to keep the business and industry currently located in the state. Tennessee’s key resource to accomplish the goal is its adult learner. The state has nearly one million adults with some college but no degree. Tennessee must find new and innovative ways to capture this wealth of opportunity for the state’s prosperity and future growth. The author discusses the current plan and proposes five key factors to engage the adult learner.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has challenged post-secondary institutions to increase the percentage of college graduates in the state’s workforce.  Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative tasks the state’s technical schools, community colleges, and universities to improve Tennessee’s current 32% credentialed workforce to 55% by the year 2025.  This increase must be attained by the state in order to provide business and industry with their projected workforce needs (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010).  Using current forecasting models, Tennessee will have only 39% of its workforce credentialed by 2025 (Lumina, 2012).  This obvious paradigm shift was foreseen by the former administration.  Governor Phil Bredesen signed into law the Complete College Tennessee Act in 2010.  This act provided many changes to post-secondary education in the state; however, its largest contribution was a funding formula change that shifted emphasis from enrollment to completion and retention.  An immediate result of this act was seen in state institutions looking into new initiatives and curriculum delivery methods such as online learning and cohort programs.  In 2011, Governor Haslam aligned Hope Scholarships (state lottery funded) with the Complete College Tennessee Act.  Other state initiatives such as TnAchieves and The Ayers Foundation provide last dollar scholarships and mentors for students attending Tennessee post-secondary institutions.  If every Tennessee high school student went to college and completed, the goal of 55% would still be short by nearly 500,000 degrees (NCHEMS & CLASP, 2013).  The adult learner holds the key in the “Drive to 55.”



Governor Haslam’s plan includes five strategies: preparation, getting students in and out, helping adult students finish, and creating alignment and accountability.  The strategies outlined by Haslam are valuable to success; however, the program woefully under emphasizes the strategic outline for the over one million adult learners in Tennessee (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011b).  Although the opportunity is highlighted by the initiative, the action plan is not in place.  It will take the combined efforts of state and local government, along with post-secondary administrations and instructors, to answer the questions surrounding the adult learner.  


Currently, only 59% of Tennessee high school graduates attend college, leaving over 25,000 students who do not attend a post-secondary institution (THEC, 2012c).  The good news concerning this statistic is that of the state’s high school students who participate in early college opportunities, 95% go on to post-secondary careers (THEC, 2012a).  The bad news is that 67% of new community college students in the state of Tennessee require some type of learning support or remediation (THEC, 2013).  Programs, such as SAILS, find community colleges working with secondary schools to provide remediation courses to ensure college readiness.  Many other community colleges are looking into embedded remediation to allow the student to enroll in a course and receive needed remediation.  This eliminates the time to completion, which increases the likelihood of credential achievement.  While these initiatives help to alleviate the problem of college-readiness for secondary students, the adult learner is left in the precarious position of extending time to degree, or creating additional work through any embedded remediation required.  Tennessee will need to address this issue to capitalize on the nearly one million opportunities present in the state.


Providing greater access to all students is imperative for the “Drive to 55.”  Over half of Tennessee students are eligible for federal financial aid (THEC, 2012b).  This option, along with initiatives such as Hope Lottery Scholarships, TnAchieves, and the Ayers Foundation provide post-secondary educational opportunities without high student loan debt.  However, the adult learner is once again left out.  All the opportunities mentioned exclude the adult learner and embrace the traditional student.  While Tennessee does have adult oriented programs such as Workforce in Action and Families First, the ability for adult students to secure these funds are not always guaranteed.  College mentoring programs have also shown benefits for Tennessee students.  These programs have provided an 8 to 12% improvement in college going rates in the schools served by the mentors (NCAC, 2013).  Mentors are a valuable part of any student’s life; however, once again, adult learners are forgotten participants in this process.  Tennessee has also approved several transfer paths to identify classes needed at the community college level that will automatically transfer at the university level once the associate degree is completed.  Getting adult learners into Tennessee colleges may require state legislative initiatives to provide adult students with the financial aid enjoyed by traditional students.  Mentoring of adult learners could be accomplished through the use of Career Development Facilitators or other professionals trained specifically in helping others understand their strengths and weaknesses while applying them to an appropriate major or certification.  

Getting Students Out

The undeniably most important result for the “Drive to 55” initiative is credential completion.  Differing teaching pedagogies are needed to achieve this goal.  Not all learners learn the same way.  This goal will be achieved only through post-secondary institutions being able to work in ways never before attempted.  Part of this challenge is for each post-secondary institution to escape from traditional methods and adopt more flexible alternatives to increase retention and graduation rates without compromising educational ethics.  Many colleges are designing programs and certificates to accelerate learning using sociocultural methods that are process/mastery based. Many businesses/industries now require even basic operators to have at least 60 college credits to be considered for employment.  In the quest for generating higher completion rates, post-secondary institutions must ensure academic integrity is not diminished in favor of increasing graduation rates which increases state and federal funding.  Weekend classes, hybrid learning, blended learning, flipped classrooms, online curriculum, block scheduling, cohort and accelerated programs, along with recognition of prior learning opportunities, will need to be enhanced and employed.  Careful analysis and research should be planned, financed, and executed in order to ensure methodologies are significantly impacting students and graduation rates.  


This strategy, which could be considered the most important due to the available participants, is not nearly as developed as the other four.   There are five strategies that must be included when considering the adult learner:


Provide credentials shown as important to local businesses and industry.  This means that post-secondary institutions must work with local clients to ensure what is offered is needed and can be relayed as important to the adult learner.


Provide Career Development Facilitators, or other trained professionals, to help guide the adult learner toward a path that provides the best possible chance for completion of a credential.


State and local government agencies should provide additional financial aid directed toward the adult learner.  These agencies may also work with local businesses and industry to provide additional training grants geared toward the adult learner.


Expand options for prior learning assessment and credit for experience.  Adult learners bring a unique and often overlooked perspective and experience level to the post-secondary classroom.


Post-secondary institutions must allow instructors freedom to be innovators.  The institutions must also find the flexibility necessary to accommodate adult learners and their work schedules.  Scholarly research must be provided concerning these initiatives and innovations to ensure significant results.  Best practices must be shared state-wide.  


Post-secondary institutions must ensure that the credentials they are providing are needed in the local economy.  Smaller satellite campuses must also be taken into consideration in this alignment.  Finance and Banking may not be a local need in some locations but a major need I others. Each institution must focus on meeting local needs.  Credentialing without employment opportunities can lead to disillusionment and resentment toward the educational system as a whole.


In order for the state of Tennessee to be successful in the “Drive to 55” the adult learner must be carefully considered.  Over 500,000 credentialed workers must come from adult students in order to achieve the goal set forth by the initiative. If the needs of adult learners are taken seriously, their achievements can help Tennessee reach its goal of a workforce where over 55% are credentialed, keep the state’s jobs secure, and recruit new business and industry to the state.


Carnevale, A., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010, June). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew /pdfs/tennessee.pdf

Lumina Foundation. (2012). A stronger nation through higher education: Tennessee. Retrieved from https://www.luminafoundation.org/publications/state_data/2012/Tennessee-2012.pdf

NCAC. (2013). National College Advising Corps: Success and results. Retrieved from http://www.advisingcorps.org/success-results

NCHEMS & CLASP. (2013). Calculating the economic value of increasing college credentials by 2025: Tennessee. Retrieved from http://www.clasp.org/resources_and_publications /flash /CPES%20ROI%20Tool/Tennessee.swf

Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). (2012a). 2012 Tennessee education lottery scholarship special report: An examination of grant and loan forgiveness programs for special populations. Retrieved from http://www.tn.gov/thec/Legislative/Reports/2012 /2012%20Lottery %20Special%20Report.pdf

Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). (2012b). The lottery scholarship’s FAFSA requirement and its impact on Pell grants for Tennesseans. Retrieved from http://www.tn.gov/thec/Legislative/Reports/2012/FAFSAPellIMAPCT%20121108%201104am.pdf

Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). (2012c). THEC student information system: College-going rate. Retrieved from http://thec.ppr.tn.gov/THECSIS/GIS/GIS.aspx

Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC). (2013). Tennessee higher education fact book: 2012-13. Retrieved from http://www.state.tn.us/thec/Legislative/Reports/2013 /2012-2013%20Factbook.pdf

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011b). American community survey 1-year estimates: Tennessee educational attainment. Retrieved August 15, 2013 from http://factfinder2.census.gov /faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_11_1YR_S1501&prodType=table

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 07, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17411, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 4:10:03 AM

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