The first year of higher education can be a make-or-break moment for many students. Those who stay consistently enrolled at an institution of higher education (IHE) during their first year have set themselves up for success based on research; students who “stop out” at some point during their first year by pausing enrollment are at risk of falling behind and joining the 15.2 percent of adults in Tennessee who have some college, no degree.

Once students have started their higher education journey, how can state and local leadershelp them stay continuously enrolled and make steady progress toward their goals?

The first meeting of the 2019-20 Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute (CTLI) took place in Nashville and focused on equity and quality of access to higher education. During the second meeting in Memphis, policy discussions focused on the theme of supporting postsecondary student success. Over the course of the two-day Memphis convening, members of the cohort rolled up their sleeves to listen, learn, and discuss potential solutions for supporting students to equitable higher education outcomes.

In order to make progress toward the Drive to 55 statewide postsecondary attainment goal, policymakers, education and workforce professionals, community advocates, and state and local leaders must encourage Tennesseans from diverse backgrounds to pursue higher education. Once enrolled, these diverse populations require different supports from IHEs as well as state and local agencies and organizations. These supports are especially important for certain student populations, such as first-generation students, who may be unsure of how to navigate the unfamiliar higher education space, and adult learners, who may be reengaging with a higher education system they don’t recognize.

The sessions on day one focused on transformative work at Southwest Tennessee Community College to best serve the needs of students in Memphis, the role that advising can have in college student success, and how to ensure that individuals have the right supports at the right place and time during transitions from middle grades to and through postsecondary and career. Additionally, during a fireside chat, SCORE board member Carolyn Chism Hardy described how education and mentorship had shaped her life. As a successful businesswoman and community leader, she now pays it forward by working to ensure that Memphians have access to good jobs.

As Tennessee looks to build on existing policies for higher education student success, higher education leaders and policymakers may consider adopting strategies to support and guide students to persistence both during their first year of higher education and as they transfer between institutions. Strategies may include:

  • Near-peer mentorship, in which recent college graduates provide one-on-one support to enrolled students;
  • In-depth high school counseling, such as the direct support that the Ayers Foundation provides to students in 10 different high schools;
  • Intentional college and career pathways; and
  • Increasing institutional focus on prioritizing equity, improving processes and procedures, and focusing on high-quality teaching.

The second day included perspectives from administrators and students who shared how support resources allowed them to persist in postsecondary. Student panelists noted that student groups, mental health counseling, and student affairs professionals helped them to thrive in college. Involvement with campus clubs and activities also made them more likely to persist through completion.

The convening closed with a powerful look at data and strategies for strengthening Tennessee transfer and dual enrollment student outcomes from research conducted by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. The data, taken from the National Student Clearinghouse, makes it clear that state and IHE leaders can do a better job of helping students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution succeed. Dr. Davis Jenkins stressed that developing guided pathways for transfer students, which often requires a top-to-bottom redesign of how IHEs operate, can ensure that every program prepares students for good jobs and further education.

While Tennessee has room for improvement, we have leaders who are speaking out about the need to better support students to persist in higher education. As a state, we can work backward from our goal for all students to attain economic prosperity to help identify the steps to achieve that goal at a systematic level. We should build upon our foundation in Tennessee to ensure that every student has supports at each transition point in their educational journey.

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

SCORE and The Hunt Institute are now accepting nominations for the fifth cohort of the Complete Tennessee Leadership Institute. The nomination window is open through April 17, 2020. Self-nominations are welcome. 

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