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Doing our part to serve the state

Meeting future workforce demands

As we begin a new year, I am reflecting on the great progress we have made as a state toward the Drive to 55 and the University of Tennessee System’s contribution toward it.

In 2014, Gov. Bill Haslam introduced the Tennessee Promise that made community and technical colleges free of tuition and fees for all Tennessee high school graduates.

A few years later, he introduced Tennessee Reconnect, providing the same benefit for non-traditional students, aka working adults.

At UT, we introduced UT Promise in 2019, making attendance at all of our campuses free of tuition and fees for families making under $50,000.

Last month, we increased that threshold to $60,000.

And, we have raised more than $30 million in our endowment toward our goal of $100 million to pay for it, truly making it a promise for generations to come.

While financial accessibility is important, so is physical access.

For many reasons, not every student can leave home and move into an on-campus residence hall. Southern Middle Tennessee was the farthest away from any UT campus, and a 23-county region of our state was without any public four-year college.

With the support of our Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee General Assembly and our UT Board of Trustees, we acquired Martin Methodist College and converted it to UT Southern, the first university added to our system in more than 50 years.

This fall UT Southern’s enrollment increased 9-percent, leading the state, and its applications for next year are up 200-percent.

This all reflects on our continued Drive to 55. When we announced the goal in 2013, 32-percent of Tennesseans had a post-secondary certificate or degree. Today 44-percent have achieved higher education.

The 55-percent wasn’t an arbitrary goal: forecasters have predicted that by 2025 that’s the level we need to meet workforce demands.

We have a lot to be proud of as a state and university, but we still have a long way to go in a few years.

If 100-percent of high school graduates go to college and 100-percent graduate on time, we will only get halfway to our goal.

There are just not enough traditional high school graduates to get us to our goal. Thus, we must do a better job of reaching our working adults.

We have to meet them where they are, through dramatically enhanced online and virtual opportunities and through new certificate programs that allow them to get the crucial job skills they need in less time in this rapidly changing world. It will take a concerted effort by all our higher-education partners in the state.

At UT, we are not just committed to doing our part, but to lead by being bold and innovative.

We know that the continued economic growth and success of the state lies in an educated workforce.

At UT, we’re committed to doing our part to change the lives of Tennesseans through education, and thus the state.