Tennessee is known across the country for the state’s thoughtful and comprehensive higher education policy structure, built over a decade of successful policy reform efforts at both the K-12 and the postsecondary levels. To ensure that all Tennesseans have equitable access to opportunity and the supports necessary for completion of a high-quality postsecondary credential, the Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute (CTLI) works with leaders from across the state to further develop the knowledge, resources, and connections needed to drive change and be higher education champions.

The program recently completed the first of four meetings for the 2019-20 CTLI cohort. Over two days, participants engaged in discussions about the economic need for greater postsecondary attainment, received an overview of the higher education policy landscape in Tennessee, and focused on data and programs to support underserved student populations and close equity gaps. Many of the policy conversations at the first meeting in Nashville were framed around the basic question of college access: Which students are able to pursue a postsecondary education, and how do they get there?

In Tennessee, higher education policymakers have focused on four traditionally underserved student populations who have specific needs related to higher education access: adult learners, low-income students, academically underprepared, and students of color. These populations hold particular weight in Tennessee’s Master Plan for postsecondary attainment.

To explore and address these gaps, CTLI participants spent their first day examining why access to postsecondary education is so crucial to Tennessee’s success. Sessions covered shifting economic trends, offered context on Tennessee’s higher education landscape, and explored Tennessee’s higher education data and how it can be used to identify and close access gaps.

On day two, Governor Bill Lee, Senator Ferrell Haile, Representative Harold Love Jr., and Representative Mark White joined the cohort for discussions on how to best drive policy change and increase access and equity for students from underserved populations. Also participating in these conversations were leaders from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Tennessee Board of Regents, and Tennessee Higher Education Commission, as well as other policy influencers, including SCORE board member Janet Ayers. During this time, participants also had the opportunity to look at data specific to their home counties and consider strategies for using that data to effect change in their communities.

As we move forward with this work to improve college access, a brief prepared by The Hunt Institute offers more context on this issue. To ensure that all students have equitable access to opportunities, we must first recognize the gaps that exist and then seek to close them through policy and practice. This policy brief and the recent CTLI convening are steps in that direction.

Samantha Gutter is senior director of strategic initiatives at SCORE. Patrick Sims is director of policy and research at The Hunt Institute.