Driving Forward:

Ensuring Postsecondary Students Earn Credentials In A Changing Economy
Summer 2020

Section 1

Degrees Disrupted

COVID-19 and the economic recession that followed have disrupted postsecondary education and the workforce in Tennessee.

Degrees Disrupted

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdowns caused a severe disruption to public education in Tennessee. Within two weeks of Governor Bill Lee declaring a state of emergency, K-12 school districts closed across the state, and colleges and universities shifted more than 200,000 students to virtual learning, joining the statewide shutdown to slow the spread of the virus. These swift changes have required education leaders to act with urgency to ensure students are able to obtain a high-quality education and a postsecondary credential during a public health crisis.

As the outbreak continued into May 2020, the US gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by nearly 5 percent, US unemployment leaped from 3.5 percent to 14.7 percent, and 600,000 Tennesseans filed for unemployment benefits. The sudden decrease in consumer and business activity has negatively affected the state’s revenue and challenged several aspects of higher education funding.1 These economic and fiscal realities present roadblocks to Tennessee students, who are trying to get ahead in a state economy where more than half of jobs require a postsecondary certificate or degree.

Tennessee’s postsecondary education systems offer students a bridge to a prosperous future in the workforce.

Tennessee’s postsecondary education systems offer students a bridge to a prosperous future in the workforce. When students have access to meaningful and equitable postsecondary training through certificate, diploma, and degree programs, they are better positioned to reach economic independence. All students need access to this opportunity, and the COVID-19 crisis makes this more imperative than ever.

COVID-19 and the economic recession could have long-lasting effects on Tennessee’s postsecondary system as the US unemployment rate increases to its highest level since the Great Depression, state resources diminish, and industries shift to meet new demands and new challenges.2 It is not yet clear how long major disruptions will last or what shape the economy will take after COVID-19. But in the meantime, students face a smaller and less stable economic environment when pursuing a degree or job after high school, and state leaders will need to consider new and innovative policy solutions to ensure that students can attain economic independence as Tennessee navigates the pandemic and recovers both physical and economic health post-COVID-19. 

From these unprecedented times arise the opportunity to ask new questions, explore new ideas, and find new policy solutions for students pursuing postsecondary education.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) and the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, have partnered to provide an outlook on the economic impact of COVID-19 on Tennessee’s postsecondary education system.

In this report, we ask two questions:

Looking Back: What can we learn from the last two recessions about the effects of economic downturns on postsecondary education and workforce development?

Looking Ahead: What economic and financial impact can we anticipate for Tennessee’s public colleges and universities, and what will it mean for students?

With answers to these questions, we offer state policymakers and higher education leaders a policy roadmap to chart the path forward in the wake of COVID-19.

Next Section

Section 1

Maintaining Momentum: The Importance of Postsecondary Education During COVID-19

During an economic downturn, a high-quality postsecondary credential matters more than ever, but colleges struggle to sustain per-student funding without raising tuition.

Maintaining Momentum: The Importance of Postsecondary Education During COVID-19 Next section title will be automatically displayed here.

Section 1 Sources

1 US Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020; Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, 2020.

2 US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020; Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration, 2020.