As SCORE prepares to welcome the newest members of the Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute (CTLI) to their first convening later this month, we checked in with former cohort member Bo Drake (CTLI, 2021-22) to get his thoughts on the future of higher education in our state and how to address the drop in Tennessee’s college-going rate.

With Tennessee falling short of its Drive to 55 goal of 55 percent of residents holding a postsecondary credential or degree by 2025 — plus a drop in college-going of nearly 12 percentage points since a peak in 2015 — CTLI is keenly focused on increasing the number of Tennesseans who enroll in higher education and complete a postsecondary pathway. Drake, vice president for workforce development at Chattanooga State Community College (CSCC), discussed ways to get more Tennesseans to and through college and into good jobs that are in demand.

Engaging Adult Students Is Key To Meeting Workforce Needs

Drake emphasized the concerning drop in college-going, while also pointing out the imminent “enrollment cliff” in 2025, referencing a significantly smaller senior class in 2025 that will limit the number of students that enroll in postsecondary education immediately after high school.

According to Drake, even if we regain some students who were lost during the pandemic, we will still fall short of our Drive to 55 goals. While Drake feels that higher education should continue to address the K-12 pipeline, he also highlighted adult students as an important population to consider engaging with. The data back this up: Nearly one in six Tennessee adults have some college but no degree. “We need to have a renewed focus on our adult population so that more students can leave low-growth jobs, obtain skills for the career path they are interested in, and help us to focus on the skills gap,” Drake said. 

Higher Education Is Not A Straight Line For Many Students

One of Drake’s big takeaways from the CTLI experience was refreshing his outlook on how individuals come into and progress through higher education. He highlighted short-term credentials and work-based learning opportunities as important options for nontraditional students. In particular, Drake cited a recent work-based learning partnership between Chattanooga State and a health-care company in Hamilton County, where students enrolled in the medical assistant program at CSCC also work in clinical rotations at the same time.  “Opportunities to earn and learn simultaneously,” said Drake, “are how we can deal with the skill shortage we talk so often about.”  Reflecting on his CTLI experience, Drake saw it as an opportunity to engage with education leaders from across the state who may help to facilitate these important relationships.

Higher Education Must Continue To Engage Business And Community Partnerships

“Colleges cannot do this alone,” Drake said when discussing the importance of aligning higher education credentials with local industry needs. He feels that higher education must continue to shift out of a prescriptive mode and more into a listening mode that allows for strong partnerships like the medical assistant program at CSCC that benefits both employers and students. “We have to develop more meaningful relationships to truly understand what our business and industry partners are looking for to help meet the needs that they have. Those relationships are crucial.”

“CTLI gets you out of your comfort zone and regional knowledge,” Drake said. “It provides you an opportunity to engage with a whole spectrum of people who are focusing on the same issues but in different parts of the state.”

CTLI’s mission to increase college completion is ongoing. The new cohort, announced last month, will convene soon and begin their collaboration to support more students in completing degrees. And we know that every day, across the state, our many CTLI alumni members are carrying on this work as well.

Sonny Metoki is a graduate fellow at SCORE. SCORE Communications Manager Diane Hughes contributed to this post.