April is Community College Month, a time to recognize and celebrate the critical role and work of community colleges nationwide. More than 88,000 students in Tennessee are enrolled in our 13 community colleges under the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) system. These institutions serve an increasingly diverse student population while meeting workforce and local needs.
Community colleges emerged to provide localized, skills-based education.
In the early 20th century, community colleges emerged as a postsecondary option for students. The need for a skilled, more competitive workforce increased with the Second Industrial Revolution, yet most high school graduates did not pursue postsecondary education. One key reason: most institutions were located far from their homes.
High schools — growing rapidly in enrollment — innovated to address some of these challenges. Many schools developed more skills-based programs on the way to a high school diploma, including “teacher academies” and enhanced manual learning, or career and technical education. And as schooling began to be seen as a mode of upward mobility, the community college began to emerge as a viable postsecondary option for students within a community. Many residents found pride in building these colleges, tailored to the needs and culture of their local citizenry.
Community college continued to be viewed as a tool for social mobility and economic development, and enrollments increased steadily through the Great Depression and post-World War II. Finally, the Truman Commission Report in 1947 called for a network of public community colleges, charging little to no tuition, to serve local areas with access to postsecondary training. The first public community college in Tennessee, Columbia State Community College, opened in 1966.
Tennessee’s community colleges continue to innovate for students.
Tennessee is a national model when it comes higher education innovation, and our community colleges are no exception. These colleges:
- Prepare the state’s future workforce through programs of study that meet occupational demand in health and clinical services, information technology, engineering technology, and business management. TBR’s Office of Economic and Community Development engages with industries and other government agencies to respond to changing workforce demands, expand apprenticeship options for students, and recruit and retain businesses to Tennessee.
- Promote social mobility of Tennesseans, with students receiving a credential from the Tennessee Board of Regents being expected to earn $182.1 million more over their lifetime than they would have earned without a postsecondary credential.
- Ensure that colleges are innovation hubs, with the Board of Regents receiving national recognition for its implementation of guided pathways practices, which is considered the “gold standard” for student-centered community college reform. Many of our state’s colleges also have strategic partnerships and advising programs that support student success in college and life.
- Hold a critical role in the state’s postsecondary attainment goal, with more than half of Tennessee’s jobs requiring a postsecondary credential by 2025. Through the state’s tuition-free financial aid programs, Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, community colleges are playing a key role in producing the college graduates necessary to meet workforce demand.
In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tennessee’s community colleges answer the call.
Community College Month also allows us to celebrate the incredible work Tennessee’s institutions of higher education have done to meet the public good during the current pandemic, including:
- Adapting quickly to the state’s emergency needs. Pellissippi State Community College and Jackson State Community College — along with a coalition of various technical colleges and universities — have banded together to construct face shields for health-care workers, a state shortage at the start of the crisis. Presently, this group is producing more than 500 headbands per day.
- Continuing to innovate to support student success. Tennessee’s community colleges have launched emergency funds to support students, and also worked to ensure that technology and hot spots are accessible to students for high-quality remote learning during these times.
For Tennessee’s students, the community college is a fundamental link between education and the workforce. Community colleges offer students a gateway to opportunity, providing them with social mobility and meaningful employment. And in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, these institutions — along with so many others — have again served Tennessee’s needs.
Bryce Warden is SCORE’s senior postsecondary policy analyst.