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Tennessee Efforts in Higher Education a National Example of Sustained Bipartisan Cooperation

Coordinated Efforts Have Begun to Show Results For Tenn. Residents

Media Inquiries:
Kat Stein at 215-898-9642 or 
 Jeff Frantz at 215-898-3269 or

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Philadelphia, PA – In the early 2000s, alarmed by low graduation rates and an underprepared workforce, Tennessee’s political, educational, and business leaders launched a plan to boost educational attainment. 

A new independent report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) from Joni Finney and other researchers details how Tennessee has targeted K–12 achievement and college affordability and access in an effort to make significant advances in postsecondary degree and certificate attainment. The ongoing work has happened under successive gubernatorial administrations, with support from both political parties. “Driven to Perform: Tennessee’s Higher Education Policies and Outcomes” highlights Tennessee as a national exemplar of the coordinated policymaking necessary to move the needle on statewide higher education attainment.

The report, issued by Penn GSE’s Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), marks the state’s successes while noting that there is much more to be done. 

“Tennessee has been able to put more of the policy pieces together than most other states. With bipartisan support over the last 15 years, and significant impetus from the business community, Tennessee has improved college preparation and enrollment, provided tuition-free community college, and increased the participation of adults in postsecondary education,” said Finney, Director of IRHE. “The lesson from Tennessee is that intractable problems do yield to well-designed – and sustained – public policies.”

To maintain momentum, IRHE recommends the following:

  • Put more state financial aid in the hands of those who need it most. IRHE recommends the state distribute more need-based aid, rather than merit-based aid, noting that Tenn. merit aid is typically awarded to students from higher income backgrounds.
  • Watch for mission creep by regional universities. The 2016 FOCUS Act untethered the state’s six regional colleges and universities from Tenn. Board of Regents’ governance. Tennessee should look to the growing problems borne of this strategy in Illinois and consider altering course.
  • Improve the institutional capacity of Tenn.’s colleges of applied technology. Few states have developed this important postsecondary sector as well as Tenn, but now it’s time to expand this sector to reach more Tennesseans.
  • Maintain the leverage provided by outcomes-based funding by protecting the state’s funding share of higher education. If the student/family share of costs increases relative to the state, Tennessee’s levers for improving educational attainment will be compromised. 

K-12 academic preparation and college readiness - Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation on fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores on the NAEP. Tennessee’s high school graduation rate has risen from 64% in 2003 to 87% in 2014.

College participation – The percentage of 18- to 24-year-old Tennesseans enrolled in college or graduate school increased by almost 3 percentage points (36% to 38.5%) from 2009 to 2015.

Tennessee Promise - shows early promise. Early data on this last-dollar scholarship program shows increasing enrollment and fewer federal loan applications.

Tennessee Labor Education Alignment Program – Grants to colleges of applied technology and local businesses are linked to the education and economic development goals for Tennessee. These grants are strategically aimed at eliminating skills gaps identified by both partners.

Affordability – From 2008 to 2015 tuition and fees increased 51% at public universities and 45% at community colleges. Students have largely borne the brunt of the increases. Tennessee Promise alone will not solve this problem, since the scholarships for tuition at community colleges and colleges of applied technology do not cover the full costs of education.

Completion – Student enrollment may be growing, but the state has seen only modest increases in college graduation. Notably, two-year public colleges have seen virtually no gains in graduation rates. Six-year graduation rates at four-year institutions between 2011 and 2015 have decreased by 4% for Blacks and by 0.5% for Hispanics. 

Percentage of race/ethnicity gaps – While 36% of Whites hold at least an associate’s degree, Blacks trail behind with an attainment of 26%, while only 18% of Hispanics—the fast-growing segment of the state’s population—complete any higher education.

The Institute for Research on Higher Education (IRHE), headquartered at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, conducts research relevant to policymakers and educational practitioners on higher education. IRHE’s mission to examine the policy forces that shape higher education has produced practical tools for researchers and policymakers, including an examination of college affordability in all 50 states.