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VOL. 8 | NO. 20 | Saturday, May 9, 2015

TCAT’s 27 Campuses Offer ‘A Different Life’

JEANNIE NAUJECK | The Ledger

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Ready for a new career? If you’re looking for a fresh start, Tennessee may be one of the best places in the world to find it.

Through May 15, residents who want to retrain in a new career field can apply for a full scholarship to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, a unique and highly effective system of technical colleges with 27 main campuses around the state.

TCAT offers programs in fields such as building construction, medical and dental assisting, automotive technology, cosmetology, aviation maintenance, practical nursing and computer information technology, and boasts exceptionally high placement rates.

Through May 15, free tuition to TCAT programs is being offered through TN Reconnect, part of Governor Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative that aims to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with college diplomas or certificates by 2020.

More than 7,500 Tennesseans have already applied for TN Reconnect grants, says Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55.

“Reconnect is an impact program,” Krause says. “It’s a very human story. It’s really offering people a chance to have a different life, which you always hope the public policy is about.

“Sometimes you have to go back to the drawing board and retool, and TCAT provides the optimal opportunity for that.”

TN Reconnect

May 15 is the deadline to apply for TN Reconnect grants, which provides full tuition for state residents wishing to attend one of 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT).

Applicants must have been state residents for one year and determined to be independent by the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

Students who have a certificate, diploma or degree and have never received a Reconnect Grant are eligible, as are students who have a two- or four-year degrees.

All other eligibility rules of Wilder Naifeh Technical Skills Grant apply. 
Funding for TN Reconnect was included last year in the Tennessee Promise bill, which provides free tuition at one of Tennessee’s community colleges.

Reconnect is a “last dollar” program, meaning it pays costs not covered by other financial aid such as Tennessee lottery scholarships or federal Pell Grants.

Information: www.tnreconnect.gov

TCAT may be the best-kept secret in post-secondary technical education. Beginning in 1964 as Tennessee Technology Centers, there are now 27 main campuses plus satellite campuses. Programs run all year so students can graduate and get jobs as quickly as possible.

No other state has such an extensive system, and TCAT’s retention, graduation and placement rates are far higher than community colleges. Graduates have an average 85 percent placement rate, and in sought-after programs like computer information technology, the rate is higher.

TCAT’s success comes from a streamlined enrollment process and fixed curriculum that eliminates much of the confusion that can trip students up – such as deciding on a major, registering and designing a class schedule – according to an analysis of TCAT by Complete College America.

Once students enroll, their courses and their pathway to a degree is laid out for them, and every element of the program is focused on successful completion.

“We’ve been excited about what TCAT does for a long time. We’ve been trying to cast a light on what they do so well, which is minimize choice,” says Krause.

“The fact is, higher education is not easy to navigate and we are trying to change that. TCAT has set up an easier path to negotiate than a lot of other colleges.”

TCAT provides a path to the middle class for many disadvantaged Tennesseans but serves plenty of displaced workers who want to change careers.

They’re people like Ben Beddingfield of Fayetteville, who was displaced from the manufacturing industry after Goodyear shut down its Dunlop tire plant in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2003.

“I was going to retire there,” Beddingfield says of his well-paying job. “I got into computers out of necessity. That was where the jobs were going.”

Beddingfield used his college assistance benefit to enroll in TCAT-Shelbyville’s award-winning computer information technology program.

Aside from using an Excel spreadsheet, Beddingfield had little experience with computers but had noticed how pervasive information systems were becoming in business.

“I was green as a gourd,” Beddingfield says. “I was not a geek. I was a blank slate for sure.”

He also felt disadvantaged because he was in his forties. But he graduated near the top of his class, got double certified (“to be more attractive than these young geeks”) and, before he could take a vacation, got a call from the Copperweld factory in Fayetteville, where he had once worked on the floor. He went back – this time as network manager.

He went on to work for Huntsville Hospital, and now serves as director of technology for Fayetteville City Schools.

Beddingfield is one of numerous successful stories from TCAT-Shelbyville’s CIT program, which has attracted national accolades for the quality of its teaching and graduates.

Much of the credit goes to Steve Mallard, master instructor and IT manager, who in 1999 began transforming the program into one that has won accolades including a Computerworld Honors Program Laureate, a TechTarget Innovation Award, an Infoworld Technology Leadership nomination and a Career Technical Education Excellence in Action award.

“It’s been successful because we listened to what the industry needed, and they said, ‘We need those folks that have the hands-on experience coming out of the gate, that are ready to run when they land in the job,’” Mallard explains. “So we produced a curriculum that does that.”

The program is 15 months long, with rolling admissions so classes graduate every three months. Students attend 30 hours per week, split between class lectures and real-world experience with government and non-profit organizations.

“Steve’s a rock star,” Beddingfield says. “He’s easy to learn under, and it’s fun when you’re there.

“We’d be sitting in the middle of a class, and he’d say, ‘Load up.’ We’d just stop what we were doing and go wire up the child development center. We were the IT department for the school but we were also going over to the sheriff’s department and helping them find evidence on a laptop, or putting a web page together for the airport.

“For me, it was better than theory. Let me see it, let me do it.”

Students can earn any of three diplomas and four certificates studying everything from computer hardware to advanced wireless technology to train for careers as systems analysts and administrators, IT managers and network engineers. The program has a 96 percent retention rate and a 92 percent placement rate.

Most earn numerous national certifications and go on to jobs with major employers in banking, health care, transportation and logistics, pharmaceuticals and publishing, as well as school systems and government agencies.

“We change a lot of lives,” Mallard points out, noting that he’s placed IT people as young as 18 and older than 60.

“We do promote going on to earn the two- or four-year degree to advance in your company, but I believe we are the best path to getting in the workforce quickly.

“The sky’s the limit in information technology, and especially with Tennessee growing in technology.”

The program regularly retrains workers who have four-year degrees in other fields but want to get into IT. One graduate now has a six-figure salary as a business systems analyst and has given back money to help others through the program.

But some start at square one. Beddingfield recalls the story of one beginner who, on being told to point her mouse “up and to the right,” lifted it into the air. She went on to become chief information officer for a major credit union.

“Steve said, ‘It ain’t where you start, it’s where you end up,’” he recalls.

Beddingfield says his public education salary isn’t quite what he made at Dunlop during manufacturing’s heyday; those jobs have become scarce.

In January, Goodman, the largest employer in Fayetteville, announced it was shutting down its factory there, displacing 1,200 employees. Those workers can either move to Texas with the company or take a severance package that includes two years of college.

Faced with that choice today, Beddingfield says he’d do it all over again.

“I’m good,” he says of his second career. “I’m going to ride this to retirement.”

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