Study By Boyd Center And SCORE Offers Four Policy Recommendations

NASHVILLE – Tennessee’s progress in getting more students to attend and complete postsecondary education is threatened by the economic disruption of COVID-19, according to a report released today by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

The digital report, Driving Forward: Ensuring Postsecondary Students Earn Credentials In A Changing Economy, was co-produced by the University of Tennessee’s Boyd Center and SCORE to examine the economic outlook for higher education in Tennessee and propose policy recommendations that support students in attaining their credentials.

“COVID-19 and the economic recession could have long-lasting effects on Tennessee’s postsecondary system as the US unemployment rate increases to its highest level since the Great Depression, state resources diminish, and industries shift to meet new demands and new challenges,” the report says.

Dr. Bill Fox and Dr. Celeste Carruthers of the Boyd Center analyzed the effects of the two previous recessions of the 21st century to look ahead to the economic impact the current downturn is likely to have on Tennessee’s public postsecondary institutions and their students.

“From Memphis to Johnson City, Tennessee is feeling the devastating economic effects of COVID-19,” Fox said. “Many of those left unemployed may not have jobs to return to and many likely will have trouble finding their first job upon graduation, so there is an air of uncertainty around how our state’s economy can grow – or even return quickly to February 2020 employment levels. It’s going to be very challenging for Tennesseans reentering the workforce, and for new job market entrants as well, so the need for education and training has never been greater.”

During the two previous recessions, more students entered higher education, with enrollment growing 27 percent at Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) and community colleges and 10 percent at universities. While state postsecondary appropriations held steady during the recessions, partly because of use of nonrecurring funds, they declined sharply after the downturns ended, and more of the financial burden fell on students, the Driving Forward analysis finds.

A postsecondary credential matters more during hard economic times, the report says, pointing to an education-employment gap that emerged during the 2001 recession, widened during the Great Recession and had not closed when the current recession began in February. And research shows that students face greater challenges in completing their postsecondary studies when per-student spending on instruction and related services fall, a higher likelihood during times of economic downturns.

“It is critical that Tennessee as a state remains committed to increasing the number of citizens with postsecondary credentials. Tennessee’s employers need highly skilled workers who hold certificates from TCATs, associate degrees from community colleges, and four-year degrees from universities,” SCORE President and CEO David Mansouri said. “We can drive forward the Drive to 55 by adopting smart policies that support our students to complete postsecondary education.”

The report offers four policy recommendations as a roadmap to stability for higher education students and institutions:

  1. Prioritize higher education funding. The report calls for maintaining full appropriations for the state’s outcomes-based funding formula, increasing financial aid for students, and creating an institution stabilization fund that could be endowed for perpetual financial support to the state’s postsecondary institutions.
  2. Reimagine career readiness. The report urges Tennessee’s Future of Work coalition to develop and implement a state workforce agenda that bolsters understanding of economic and workforce trends, supports secondary and postsecondary education in helping students develop in-demand skills, and creates and strengthens education-employer partnerships.
  3. Innovate in teaching and learning. The report says Tennessee should invest in helping higher education institutions develop virtual and blended learning in technical fields, competitive research grants to improve understanding of virtual learning, and professional development for faculty and staff in online learning and student success pedagogy.
  4. Focus on equity, student support, and success. Because COVID-19 threatens to worsen the completion challenges faced by underserved, at-risk, and first-generation students, the report calls for a coordinated degree-completion strategy that emphasizes seamless hybrid and virtual degree programs for students, equitable student support services, and high-quality advising programs at the high school and postsecondary levels.

Driving Forward is now online at

The Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research is a nonpartisan research hub within the Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Its mission is to research and inform conversations around the key public policy issues of the day. The center conducts research on national and state economic trends for UT, state agencies and public and private organizations. It also analyzes and disseminates data on the demography and economy of Tennessee in conjunction with the Tennessee State Data Center. For more information about the Boyd Center, visit

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is a nonpartisan nonprofit education policy and advocacy organization based in Nashville, Tennessee. SCORE was founded in 2009 by Senator Bill Frist, MD, former US Senate majority leader, and works to transform education in Tennessee so all students can achieve success in college, career, and life. For more information about SCORE, visit