The last decade has seen the creation of statewide postsecondary policy reforms and partnerships designed to increase the postsecondary attainment rate in Tennessee; as a result, the number of working-age adults in Tennessee who have completed a postsecondary degree or certificate has grown by an impressive 44.4 percent since 2008, from 31.3 percent to 45.2 percent attainment.

Why is that important?

After the 2008 economic recession, more than 95 percent of the jobs created during the recovery went to people with some sort of education beyond high school. And we learned from Driving Forward that during the last two recessions, the unemployment gap between those with a college degree and those without widened, and has not narrowed.

While we have made great progress, the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made raising the postsecondary attainment rate even more necessary for the future. As we move through and beyond the COVID-19 recession, it is clear that a commitment to improving postsecondary attainment must be at the center of economic recovery efforts.

The Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute (CTLI) contributes to these efforts by cultivating champions of higher education across the state. Since 2016, CTLI has worked to ensure that all Tennesseans have equitable access to high-quality postsecondary opportunities and the supports necessary for completion. The year-long program allows leaders from across the state to:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of higher education and economic issues at the local level
  • Witness best practices and policies to tackle real challenges
  • Build professional relationships with a group of strong leaders advocating for change across Tennessee. 

As SCORE and The Hunt Institute prepare to welcome our sixth cohort of leaders into the program for the first session focused on equity of access for all students on September 21 and 22, we know that the program will look a bit different than it has in the past. We remain steadfast in our commitment to centering all of our conversations and recommendations on the experiences and well-being of students. And we have made additional necessary commitments: to put the safety and well-being of our program participants first when determining the feasibility of gathering as a group — which is what guided our decision to meet virtually for our first two sessions. We are also committed to further highlighting the racial and economic inequities that affect students in Tennessee and providing opportunities for reflection on addressing systemic inequities.

The mission of CTLI calls us to directly confront issues affecting postsecondary students and their success, and to be responsive to the issues that affect students in Tennessee. A nimble responsiveness grounded alongside a commitment to equitable student outcomes is needed in our leaders now more than ever. CTLI seeks to:

  • Strengthen the networks and capabilities of a leadership that puts the needs and safety of students first
  • Recognize the lived experiences of others
  • Adapt when presented with new and relevant information

There is work to be done. We are eager to welcome the next cohort of CTLI leaders into this network to reimagine and commit to working toward a more equitable postsecondary system and economic recovery moving forward.

Kate Watts is SCORE’s postsecondary engagement manager.

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