In an inauguration speech that skimmed a potpourri of topics and leaned on the familiar mantra of “education, public safety and economic development,” Mayor Karl Dean said something two Fridays ago he never had before: Nashville should double its number of college graduates –– in just five years.
“I’m setting a marker on this today,” Dean told a few hundred onlookers, sharing the stage with a newly elected crop of Metro Council members. “Our city needs to double our number of college graduates. The experts say this should take 10 years. I see no reason why we should not try to do it in five.”
Using the podium to discuss public education is nothing new for Dean, who begins his second term with an unchanged reality when it comes to that topic: As a school district with all the inherent challenges of an urban setting, Metro Nashville Public Schools and its 78,400 students –– three-fourths of whom qualify for federal free and reduced lunches –– continue to lag behind the state in test scores. Metro students, for example, earned a composite score of 18.1 on the ACT in 2011, nearly a full point lower than the state average.
Discussing his goal in an interview with The City Paper, Dean logically tied how more citizens holding college diplomas can enhance the economic vibrancy of a community.
“Cities that have a higher number of college graduates in their population see the income of the city go up and the gross metropolitan product go up as well,” Dean said. “It’s also important for individuals. Having more of our young people go to college –– whether it’s a four-year school or a two-year school or a trade school –– they are putting themselves on the career paths that help them have a better life.”
Lacking direct governance of the school system –– he isn’t the superintendent –– Dean has to be creative in using his office to try to nudge Metro schools forward. In his first term, that meant luring Teach for America to Nashville, helping launch a new attendance center to curb truancy, planting seeds for a new charter incubator to help grow the publicly financed, privately run schools here, and kick-starting a new after-school program.
Dean’s new announcement –– spurred by what he called a “certain sense of urgency” –– outlined an actual yardstick, and there are a few ways to unpack the challenge.
First, there’s the 20.6 percent of all Davidson County adults who hold a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released 2010 American Community Survey data. That places Nashville below comparable cities like Austin, Texas, Denver and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., cities with 27.4, 25.4, and 31.3 percent of their populations holding bachelor’s degrees, respectively. In contrast, Nashville’s mark is above the 17.9 percent of Memphis. Associate degrees or other graduating certificates are not included in these figures.
Another way to comprehend Dean’s target is to zero in on MNPS itself. The district’s data shows 25 percent of Metro’s 2004-05 graduating class went on to earn college degrees within six years after completing high school. Of course, that data doesn’t factor in thousands of Nashville students who never completed high school. Moreover, not all of these college graduates reside in Nashville.
Either way, Nashville is facing a strong headwind to meet Dean’s marker, new research suggests.
Just days following Dean’s inauguration, the nonprofit Complete College America –– funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation –– released a national report that reveals while young people are enrolling in college in greater numbers, there’s been little headway in actually graduating.
“The good news is that most kids in this country and their families have come to understand that high school isn’t high enough,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president of Complete College America. He pointed out 70 percent of people pursue some sort of further education within two years of exiting high school.
“We’ve been focused so long and hard on access –– making sure all Americans have access to college education –– that we’ve succeeded, by and large,” he said. “Where we’ve failed is in the success part of the equation. It’s become access with no success.”
With the cooperation of 33 governors, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the non-profit’s study offered a new take on analyzing college graduation. Unlike the federal government, which looks solely at first-time, full-time students, Complete College America analyzed the graduation figures of part-time, Pell Grant and other nontraditional college students. Part-time students represent 40 percent of the nation’s college students.
The nonprofit categorizes what it dubs a “new American majority.” In the past, the archetypal college student lived on campus and attended full time. This group, however, represents only 25 percent of college students today. The rest –– the new majority –– are commuting, attending part time or balancing school with families, Sugar said.
Counting all students –– many with complicated lives –– the numbers are troubling. For every 100 students in Tennessee who enrolled at a public college or university, 46 started at a community college. Of those, only two graduated on time, and 11 graduated in four years. For the 54 Tennessee students who enrolled directly in a four-year college, 17 graduated on time and 33 graduated after their eighth year.
In all, only 31 percent of Tennessee’s 25-34 year-olds have an associate’s degree or higher.
Back in Nashville, Dean told The City Paper efforts to increase the number of Nashville college graduates is focused chiefly on the outcomes of Metro students. That begins, he said, with ensuring students first graduate high school. He referenced the new attendance center, aimed at lowering truancy rates, and middle school after-school programs that work to keep kids engaged.
Dean also discussed possibly expanding “One Step Ahead,” a dual-enrollment program he unveiled two years ago that offers scholarship funds to Metro students who elect to take some college courses. He also said Metro dollars set aside to assist in creating a new Antioch-area campus for Nashville State Community College can help alleviate that school’s current overcrowding and cater to additional Southeast Davidson County students.
Though Dean’s call to raise the number of college graduates seems lofty, it enjoys the backing of key education stakeholders and leaders.
In its Partnership 2020 initiative, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce –– which often has goals that align with Dean’s –– reported the Nashville region lags behind many peer communities in terms of the proportion of residents who have an associate’s degree or higher.
Marc Hill, the chamber’s chief education officer, called Dean’s aim to increase Nashville’s college graduates an “ambitious goal,” but one guided by the right focus: “Our workforce projections show that over a 10-year period, we’re projected to have a gap in the number of skilled workers.
“The bottom line is: We need to increase the number of adults with degrees in our region,” Hill said. “We project a gap of 22,000 workers with the right skills and knowledge for the next 10 years.”
From the district’s perspective, Director of Schools Jesse Register, contracted to lead MNPS through 2015, said increasing college graduates is a “great initiative,” one the city should embrace as a community.
“There aren’t any quick fixes to doing that,” Register said. “You don’t turn that around real fast. But I know the mayor and I have had conversations –– and I’ve talked to a lot of folks in the business community –– that there are many technology jobs that are coming to the area. What we have to do is increase the number of people who are qualified to fit these jobs.”
Register said the district tries to instill a “10-year plan” into all its students, with hopes of getting kids thinking past high school and even beyond post-second school.
Students who have the most difficulty finishing college are minorities, especially those who came from low-income families. Language can also be a barrier. And in Nashville, 22 percent of the school district’s students come from non-English-speaking homes. Ten percent of Metro’s student body are
considered English language learners, who by law must still learn subjects like math and science in English. Most English learners are economically disadvantaged.
The district’s Alan Coverstone, whose previous role was solely to oversee Metro’s charter schools, was recently tapped to lead Metro’s new “Office of Innovation,” composed of 10 low-performing Nashville schools, many in some of the city’s most impoverished and ethnically diverse areas.
“Essential to our mission is to be able to prepare kids to take advantage of college,” Coverstone said. “Really, college and career skills are indistinguishable now. We’re absolutely, 100 percent committed in this office to increasing the number of college-ready graduates, especially low-income college-ready graduates in Nashville.”