Gov. Haslam encourages more Tennesseans to choose higher education

Gov. Bill Haslam sought to build support for his push to get more Tennesseans to continue their education past high school with an event Wednesday at Music City Center.

The Tennessee Republican told about 300 business, political and education leaders that the state needs to lift the portion of residents with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025 to stay competitive economically. That will mean adding about 494,000 college or technical school graduates over the next 13 years.

In an event that was one part status update and one part sales pitch, Haslam attempted to lay out the rationale for his higher education goals, an initiative he calls the "Drive to 55."

The governor announced the creation of a new website Wednesday but no new policies. Instead, he used the 90-minute presentation to "build awareness" for the programs he's launched since he first mentioned Drive to 55 in his State of the State address eight months ago.

"The stakes have never been higher," Haslam told the crowd.

Later, in a meeting with The Tennessean Editorial Board, he said the push would figure heavily into the 2014-15 budget proposal and his legislative agenda, but he declined to offer specifics.

Drive to 55 includes an assortment of programs. One, TNAchieves, uses mostly private funds to provide extra scholarship money to students who otherwise could not afford college. Another, WGU Tennessee, is a partnership with the online Western Governors University, and a third, Chattanooga State's Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, helps high school seniors who have struggled in math catch up before they enroll in college.

The programs are intended to encourage more high school graduates to earn at least a two-year technical certificate or to get more mid-career adults to finish their degrees. The Haslam administration says that 940,000 Tennesseans have some college credit but not enough for an associate or four-year degree.

Presenters argued that every worker will need some post-high school education in the future.

About 32 percent of all Tennesseans have a degree or certificate.

The speakers included Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and Anant Agarwal, president of edX, a joint online learning initiative between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

Randy Boyd, a Knoxville businessman who volunteered to work in the governor's office for a year as his special assistant for education, also spoke at the event. He compared Drive to 55 to the Apollo program.

"Our biggest obstacle is our culture, our set of expectations," he said. "It's just a decision of will. We just have to decide to go."


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