VOL. 132 | NO. 95 | Friday, May 12, 2017
Southwest Tennessee Community College Moves Toward Change
By Bill Dries
Kenyatta Lovett, the executive director of the nonprofit education advocacy group Complete Tennessee, says there is an old joke in higher education that sometimes comes to the surface when change is promised or pledged.
Southwest Tennessee Community College is among community colleges across the state who are graduating there first students from the Tennessee Promise program this month.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
“If government and religion had a love child, it would be higher education,” Lovett told a group of 200 educators and other staff of Southwest Tennessee Community College this week as they gathered in a gym on the Macon Cove campus.
“Higher education is very hard to change,” Lovett added by way of explanation about the structural DNA of higher education institutions and the resulting resistance to change. “Even inside of it or even trying to work from the outside, it doesn’t change very easily.”
Lovett talked on a broader scale about changes for community colleges statewide as leaders of Southwest completed six months of work on an overhaul of its processes and procedures in particular.
In October, SWTCC president Tracy Hall had gathered teachers and other staff in the same gymnasium and said the community college had to change.
She talked of “journeys of confusion” for students looking for answers from faculty and staff members still split along the lines of the 2000 merger of State Technical Institute and Shelby State Community College. And enrollment was dropping.
“We send our kids all around and then we scratch our heads,” she said at the time. “We have no idea why our kids aren’t successful. … The way we have been operating will change.”
During the past six months, the state’s 13 community colleges became the sole focus of the Tennessee Board of Regents as four-year state colleges and universities each got independent boards.
Three years after the start of Tennessee Promise, which offers two years of free community college to Tennessee high school graduates, the Tennessee Legislature augmented the program by passing a law this year extending the same offer to older adults who don’t have a college degree or certificate.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam speaks Saturday, May 13, at Southwest’s graduation, which will include some of the first Tennessee Promise graduates.
Haslam has set a goal of 55 percent of Tennesseans having a college degree or certificate by 2025. The rate currently stands at just under 40 percent.
“Innovation is necessary at scale,” Lovett said. “No longer can we do programs that benefit 50 students, 100 students or 250 students. We need something that is going to work with 5,000, 6,000, 10,000 students.”
The faculty and staff at Southwest broke up into groups to come up with “process maps” that suggest changes that are tentative at this point but which Hall says will be refined and put into action starting in the fall.
”They looked at each and every process from recruitment all the way to completion to see where are we losing students, where are the barriers,” Hall said after the luncheon Tuesday, May 9. “It may be staffing. It may be equipment. It may be additional professional development. What do we need to do? And it’s incumbent upon leadership to say, ‘Now it’s time to implement it.’”
The reforms include eliminating duplication of roles that have remained in the 17 years since the merger of State Tech and Shelby State. The plan also calls for a single answer to questions from students instead of different answers from different factions that Hall called out in October.
Hall began the process in October with a wariness about forming study groups just to form groups.
“A lot of times we make incremental changes. But this is a big audacious goal,” she told the group this week. “It’s transformative of the way we do business. It’s even bigger than changing the students’ experience. It’s about collectively and positively impacting the college culture.”
Southwest is working with Achieving the Dream, a national education nonprofit, on the changes.
To some degree, all of the players in both the Southwest and statewide efforts hope to draw funding from education foundations like the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Lovett says those foundations increasingly are “sick and tired of the fact that most institutions and communities can’t solve the equity problem.”
“Diversity and equity are two totally different things,” he said. “Diversity is checking the box. Equity is more about outcome. When we think about equity it’s not just black and white, although that is included. It’s rich and poor. It’s young and old. It’s rural versus urban.”
Completing a college education at some level from a certificate that allows employment at a “middle-skill job” in manufacturing or information technology to a master’s degree or doctorate depends on income. Lovett points to a five percent graduation rate at Tennessee’s community colleges for African-American students.
“We have an equity problem in Memphis,” he said. “You have to solve the problem for the nation.”
Lovett is the son of Bobby L. Lovett, a retired history professor at Tennessee State University who was born in Memphis and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School.
The younger Lovett said his father took a year between high school and college to earn money to go to Arkansas A&M.
“The way he paid for college was he laid bricks,” Lovett said of his father. “He hitchhiked on the lumber trucks. … He would come back home, lay more bricks, go back to school.”
These days, Lovett said his father’s path isn’t possible and the jobs that could pay for a bachelor’s degree today come from jobs that require an associate degree or a training certificate.
“If you laid bricks for an entire year or two or three years, what university do you think you would have enough money for even books?” he asked.