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VOL. 41 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 9, 2017

Tennessee Reconnect’s task: Connecting with those who need it

By Joe Morris

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Nashville State Community College has a new east campus at 2845 Elm Hill Pike.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

There are an estimated 900,000 adult Tennesseans who have some college or certification credit who might be able to head back to the classroom to complete studies, thanks to the newly launched Tennessee Reconnect program.

But, how do you get busy adults with jobs, family obligations and bills to make the leap? How do you even get their attention?

Two years after launching the high-school oriented part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, the state legislature has signed off on Tennessee Reconnect, aimed at adults who want to earn a college degree.

Tennessee Reconnect will roll out during fall 2017 and into 2018, joining the Tennessee Promise program, both of which are geared toward helping the adult student achieve a degree or certification.

“The Tennessee Reconnect program does a lot of things,” says Jessica Gibson, assistant executive director for adult learner initiatives at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“It covers adults going back to or starting college for the first time, and gives them a lot of options as far as where they can attend school.

“What we’re doing now is working with institutions and communities directly to make sure they have startup funds and technical assistance so they can start with advisory and support services.”

“If you are an adult Tennessean who wants to complete a degree or credential, you’re going to be at home, at work, driving between the two … and so you need not only to find out about the program, but also learn who to call and how to get started,” Gibson adds.

“There may be questions, and that’s why we are putting into place people who are not associated with any college or institution who can sit down with anyone interested and review what kind of options are available, what the support structure looks like, scheduling issues and anything else to build a path to navigate what can be a very complicated system.”

Tennessee Reconnect will cost $10 million when fully implemented, according to the state and, like Tennessee Promise, is funded by the Tennessee Lottery.

The adult program is thought to need more outreach than its counterpart for high-school students because its intended audience isn’t nearly as captive.

Tennessee Reconnect is launching with eight communities, each serving multiple counties, which initially cover 71 of the state’s 95 counties. Each is designed to serve between 8,000 and 9,000 adults, Gibson explains.

“When we say ‘serve,’ we mean help those people through the process of going back to school,” she points out.

“It may take someone six months to decide to actually go back. We launched three of our communities in March 2016 so we could get some initial numbers and see how adults would engage with us, and we launched five more last November.

“The legislation for the initiative hadn’t passed yet, but we wanted to have the structure in place so that when the program did receive legislative funding, we would be ready,’’ she adds.

On community college campuses, the activation of Tennessee Reconnect is being met with the same enthusiasm that Tennessee Promise was.

“We are ready and eager to help those adults earn a college degree or technical certification,” says Nancy Patterson, vice president of college advancement and public relations at Chattanooga State Community College.

“We know they will be coming with work schedules that need to be planned around, and life has a way of slowing down their progression.

“We want to make sure we are providing a great support system, just as we did with Tennessee Promise, and working with our state partners to ensure that those students get to us ready to go.”

To that end, Patterson says Chattanooga State has launched college-scheduling technology, a tool that lets a student add or request classes through selection criteria based around his or her outside schedule.

As students utilize it, the college can look at the times and types of classes needed and adjust academic planning accordingly. The college, along with its counterparts across the state, also will be using prior learning assessments, or PLAs, to gauge where a student’s existing knowledge through work and/or military experience, for example, can be converted to college credits and thus moving them down the road toward completion more quickly.

“We want to fast track these people when we can, because often they bring a lot of hard-earned knowledge with them,” she explains.

Tennessee Reconnect also was on the minds of administrators at Nashville State Community College during its recent master-planning process, explains Sarah Roberts, interim vice president of academic affairs.

“Looking at our service area demographic, we saw a lot of adults in east and north Davidson County without college degrees, which was one reason that led to our new campus in Donelson,” she says.

Roberts adds that the new campus will likely have a high concentration of applied computer information technology programs for adult learners, but also will feature a bridge program for the college’s very successful program for nurses to move from an LPN to an RN degree.

“We’re moving a lot of programs into that area to take advantage of being on that side of the country, but also to make sure we have the programs in place that all students want,” adds George H. Van Allen, president.

“Nobody wants to drive from Donelson or Hermitage out to the White Bridge Road campus at 8 a.m., or go the opposite way in the afternoon; that’s why the campus we purchased flourished for a while. Now we can work with the state to cultivate a population to attend, which is going to take effort outreach.”

At Knoxville’s Pellissippi State, some advance legwork took the form of using some funds to create a pre-Tennessee Reconnect program as a trial run, says Ted Lewis, vice president for academics.

“We were anticipating that the program would pass, so we wanted to see what our enrollment would look like once those funds were available,” Lewis says.

“We’ve had open houses on campus for adult learners, and have had record numbers – about 300 people – at each one of them. There is tremendous increase in this, and we think some adults are going to want to get started right away.”

That’s exactly what THEC officials want to hear, and they plan to engage that enthusiasm for a successful rollout that captures interest in every way possible.

“The institutions themselves are going to focus on Tennessee Reconnect, and they are very much part of the umbrella of what we’re going to do as far as our communities, marketing and other ways to let people know we’re here and what we offer,” Gibson says.

“We want to hit at all levels, so we can equip all our partners with the knowledge and resources they need, and then help them share that with potential students in the community.”

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