Section 5

The Roadmap To Stability

New policies can help ensure students succeed in earning postsecondary credentials. Here are our recommendations to Tennessee policymakers and higher education leaders.

The Roadmap To Stability

Today, more than half of Tennessee’s jobs require a postsecondary credential. These jobs hold a promise of higher wages and upward mobility for all Tennesseans, with particular significance for historically underserved groups, including students of color, low-income students, and first-generation college students.

Driving forward, state policymakers and postsecondary leaders should focus on four policy areas.

Tennessee policymakers and postsecondary leaders enter a new decade after more than 10 years of meaningful, student-centered changes and sustained economic growth. COVID-19 and the pending economic effects threaten the state’s capacity for continued improvement, but the momentum cannot stop now. Driving forward, state policymakers and postsecondary leaders should focus on four policy areas in the months and years ahead to address the looming crisis.

1. Prioritize Higher Education Funding

Maintain full funding of the state’s outcomes-based formula to ensure that state supports for each student are steady in the years to come.

Increase financial aid for students, investing more funds into Tennessee Promise and Reconnect supplements, need-based TSAA, and Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grants. Additionally, lawmakers should be mindful of the true financial aid value — or purchasing power — of these scholarships as the economy continues to change.

Create an institution stabilization fund with an initial one-time state investment that could be endowed for long-term use and provide perpetual financial support — for both student needs and operational costs — for institutions of higher education.

2. Reimagine Career Readiness

Expand Tennessee’s Future of Work coalition, comprising postsecondary and business leaders convened by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, with the goal of developing and implementing a state workforce agenda for Tennessee. The coalition should convene to make continuous state and local policy recommendations rooted in:

  • The development of a prospective understanding of local technology, skill demands, and jobs in Tennessee. Use up-to-date and retrospective workforce and labor data to understand where jobs will reemerge, what skills they will require, what wage levels are offered, and how postsecondary programs and credentials can adapt to prepare students for a changed economy.
  • Further investigation of dual enrollment and short-term credential opportunities for Tennessee’s high schools and postsecondary academic degree programs, including developing an evidence-based understanding of their effects, with the intent of providing students with more in-demand hard skills on a pathway to a high school diploma and postsecondary degree.
  • Cultivated and improved education-workforce partnership between K-12, postsecondary, and industry, where industries lead the way in providing talent development and skills training that lead to meaningful postsecondary credentials for interested high school and college students.

3. Innovate In Teaching And Learning

Provide resources to higher education institutions, and community colleges and TCATs in particular, to offer virtual and blended learning in technical fields. These resources need to support staggered scheduling and personal protective equipment when in-person instructional days are necessary, as well as technology for equitable access to online classes.

Offer competitive research grants to increase our understanding of how virtual and hybrid learning works best in Tennessee as well as the equity implications of virtual learning in colleges and universities.

Offer professional development in online learning instruction and student success pedagogy for faculty and staff.

4. Focus On Equity, Student Support, And Success

COVID-19 threatens to disrupt Tennessee’s momentum, scale back gains that have been made under the Drive to 55, and worsen the challenges faced by underserved, at-risk, and first-generation students.

COVID-19 has heightened the need for equitable support to students in earning postsecondary credentials.

Launch a coordinated degree-completion initiative to heighten focus on program completion and equity gaps in resources and outcomes during the COVID-19 economic crisis. Strengthening local partnerships between public institutions of higher education at the local levels will ensure the development, scaling, and cost-effectiveness of evidence-based completion strategies across the state’s public colleges and universities. Through the guidance and collaboration of state policymakers and institution leaders, these state-supported completion networks should consider a multiyear approach that investigates, supports, and incorporates:

  • Expanding articulation agreements between public colleges and universities, exploring opportunities to offer hybrid and virtual degree programs between institutions of higher education with seamless credit articulation for students on credential pathways.
  • Disbursing available resources to develop more equitable support services for students in virtual or on-campus learning environments, such as technology devices and Wi-Fi, campus or e-campus student support services, and wraparound academic and social-emotional counseling supports. Additionally, fund the development and testing of early warning indicators for at-risk students, emergency funds to support students through financial hardship, and solutions to food and housing insecurity.1
  • Building and expanding high-quality advising structures at both the high school and postsecondary levels to ensure every student has access to a dedicated advisor, coach, mentor, or point of contact to support them.2
  • Issuing an annual postsecondary and career transitions report about key student success milestones from high school to postsecondary education and workforce, disaggregated by race and socioeconomic status. The report should include metrics such as high school graduation rate; career and technical education concentration; college-going rate; learning supports by subject; postsecondary persistence rate from fall to spring semester and year to year; employment status; and salary rate with and without degree or credential beyond high school.

COVID-19 has disrupted postsecondary education nationwide, but one thing remains certain: Tennessee leads the nation when it comes to expanding access and supporting success for postsecondary students. After a decade of progress, state leaders have the opportunity to ask new questions and be bold with improved student outcomes in the decade to come. To drive the state’s prosperity forward, Tennessee must ensure that all students earn the postsecondary credentials that will bring them the greatest success in a changing economy.

Section 5 Sources

1 Georgia State University. (n.d.). “Student Success Programs.”

2 Boudreau, Emily. “Investing In Counselors Isn’t Only About Mental Health, It’s Good For Academics Too,” Usable Knowledge, February 19, 2020,; Mulhern, Christine.  “Beyond Teachers: Estimating Individual Guidance Counselors’ Effects on Educational Attainment.” Harvard University (May 2020).

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