By Jeffrey J. Selingo
Over the last decade, Tennessee has frequently been held up as a national model for higher-education reform in the U.S.
In 2010, state lawmakers forged a groundbreaking agreement to tie taxpayer appropriations to institutional outcomes, such as credit completion and graduation rates, rather than to enrollment as most states do. In 2013, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, a Republican, announced an effort called “Drive to 55” to increase the percentage of residents with a college credential to 55 percent by 2025 (up from 32 percent at the time). And in 2014, the state created the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which offers two years of free tuition at the state’s community and technical colleges.
Together, the three initiatives were designed to lift the state’s historically low college-attainment rate—it ranks 44th nationally—and, in turn, boost its economy. But moving the needle on college access and completion has proven more difficult than state officials and higher-education leaders imagined, especially for the state’s most underserved students.
While lawmakers successfully put in place incentives for students to enroll in higher education and for colleges to improve how they serve them, the state still lacked the infrastructure to provide institutions with the know-how to reverse their low retention and graduation rates. In addition, the public lacked any context for Tennessee’s poor standing nationally in college attainment, so residents and business leaders were reluctant to push institutions to get better.
“We had the framework, the structure for change, but not the plumbing,” said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee, which was formed in 2016 to be that plumbing. The advocacy organization—which sits between the formal structures that operate the state’s higher-education institutions and the various constituencies with an interest in higher education (students, parents, business leaders, and lawmakers)—is focused on “educating, engaging, and mobilizing” the state to be more supportive of the completion agenda.
“An organization like Complete Tennessee is a critical piece,” said Lovett, who previously led community college initiatives for the state’s Board of Regents. “If you want to change the culture long-term to be more mindful of completion, to highlight the issues around equity, you need this type of entity. The angle by which we attack this problem provides a way in which we can say and do things that others cannot.”
To achieve that purpose, Complete Tennessee focuses its work in three areas. First, it acts as a stabilizing force in state government and in the business community where leaders frequently change roles. Complete Tennessee organizes seminars and institutes for postsecondary and community leaders, as well as policy staff members, to educate them on the completion challenges facing students and institutions. Second, the organization, through regular reports, serves as a clearinghouse for providing accurate data on college completion and holding state and higher-education officials accountable for their promises. Third, because college completion rates vary across the state, Lovett’s organization partners with counties to develop formal completion strategies that are responsive to local needs.
Without a formal group like Complete Tennessee, Lovett said the completion agenda in the state would “stand just as policy—some institutions would embrace it and act as exemplars, and others would just ignore it.”
For Lovett, serving as the first executive director of an organization dedicated to college completion is deeply personal. His father was a history professor at Eureka College in Illinois, where Kenyatta was born in faculty housing. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Nashville, when his father secured a teaching position at Tennessee State University. Growing up, Lovett heard often about students who struggled to stay in school and graduate. “It was ingrained in me that we needed to change the system, so that everyone was successful,” Lovett said.
After he graduated from college, Lovett spent a few years working in the private sector before landing a marketing position at Volunteer State Community College. Although he had little interaction with students in his job, he vividly recalled a day when a student—an adult frantically looking for help, with a child in her arms and two others tagging along—stopped by the office where he worked.
“Someone else just pointed her elsewhere and told her to try there,” Lovett said. “The woman was frustrated. No one was helping her. She took off sobbing, and I ran after her in the parking lot to help her figure out where she needed to go.”
The brief interaction with the student was a clarifying moment for Lovett. He realized how “scary and confusing” college is to many students, particularly for first-generation students where higher education isn’t discussed at the dinner table and for students who don’t fit the traditional mold, such as time-pressed and place-bound adults with children.
For that student, “I saw how a helping hand made a difference,” Lovett said. “That’s when I realized that I wanted to make sure I can support students who most need higher education in their lives.”
That empathy for students is reflected in Lovett’s day-to-day work and has earned him a reputation for being a compassionate advocate for his cause, said Tom Sugar, president of the national advocacy organization, Complete College America. But Lovett doesn’t just make his case with emotion; he leads with evidence. “He truly believes in what he’s delivering, but he wants to convince you with the facts,” Sugar said.
Lovett honed his persuasion skills while at the Tennessee Board of Regents, where he helped guide the creation of a comprehensive community college system for the state. Because he didn’t have direct supervision over the institutions, his success depended on persuading 13 colleges to agree that a centralized resource was in their best interests. “I needed to figure out the best arguments to achieve my purpose, how to appeal to different segments of colleges, and most of all find evidence to support my arguments,” Lovett said.
While Tennessee receives plenty of national accolades for its higher-education initiatives, Sugar said, “Kenyatta is not resting on his laurels.”
“He’s always challenging himself to do better,” Sugar added, “and making sure that people understand the problems he’s trying to tackle.”
For Lovett, finding scalable solutions to those problems can’t happen fast enough. Despite nearly a decade of sustained efforts focused on improving college completion, Tennessee remains short of its goals. In particular, wide gaps still exist in the graduation rates of underrepresented students. African-American enrollment is lagging at the state’s community colleges, for example, with these students graduating at a rate 11 percentage points behind their peers. And that comes as the overall numbers for the two-year colleges are disconcerting: their three-year graduation rate is 20 percent.
In its public reports, Complete Tennessee doesn’t shy away from highlighting these troublesome statistics and often uses blunt language to describe the state’s situation. Take this line in a recent report from the organization: “There are clear challenges that undermine the larger goal of transforming Tennessee’s pipeline of talent into a more skilled and educated workforce.”
When the public, business leaders, and lawmakers are inundated with reports and data as they are now, tough-love is sometimes necessary to grab their attention, Lovett said. “When we highlight that data and show it to everyone, then they back up and really think, ‘Oh, wow, we have a problem and how do we address this?’” He added, “For the institutions, they’ve known these numbers for a long time, but it hasn’t really been out in the community.”
The strength of Complete Tennessee will receive perhaps its biggest test in the coming year. The state is in the midst of a major political transition: all of the state’s 99 House seats are up for election; so too are half of the state’s 33 senators. Governor Haslam is term limited after eight years, and a new governor will be elected in November.
Tennessee successfully handed off its completion agenda once before, when Haslam succeeded Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, in 2011. Indeed, higher education has been a bipartisan issue in Tennessee for more than a decade. It’s Lovett’s hope that the state has been focused on these reforms for long enough that officials can transcend politics and use the tools they already have at their disposal, such as the Promise scholarship and performance-based funding, to continue to improve.
“One of the biggest successes we see from the first year is that we are now seeing communities meet on their own, even without our facilitation, and figure out how they are going to reach our attainment goal,” Lovett said. “Eventually our success might be measured by whether we are needed to even push this agenda a decade from now.”