Building a thriving city, one degree at a time

Government, non-profits and educational institutions are working in tandem to raise post-secondary education attainment in Memphis. The strategies are varied--from removing financial barriers to encouraging adults to return to school--but the outcomes are proving effective in creating a more competitive city.

Aniysha Tate's path through higher education had a few bumps. The first time she enrolled in college, she experienced a death in the family and sat out for a few semesters. Her second go at it, she ran out of money.

But this past May, Tate, 33, of Hickory Hill, turned the tassel and walked away with a bachelor’s degree in liberal sciences. Luckily for her, the University of Memphis has developed programs for students in her situation to stay the course and finish out their degree programs.

"Now I can say, 'I accomplished that. I set forth to do that, and I accomplished it,'" Tate, a customer account associate for Raymond James, says. And she is not alone.

Many students experience similar obstacles getting in the way of their college goals. Many don't even make it onto campus. In fact, Memphis has more than 200,000 college non-completers in the community. The Bluff City's high school graduation rate topped out at 70.3 percent in 2012, and the community has an even more challenging college enrollment rate.

In the past few years, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s office, the office of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., local universities, and local organizations and national foundations have stepped in to better these numbers and put Memphis on the map of competitive cities.

"If you look at competitive cities that are strong economically, like Raleigh-Durham, Atlanta and Austin, their level of post-secondary attainment, which is usually master's degrees and above, is 40 percent or higher," Douglas Scarboro, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Talent and Human Capital sayes. "That tells me in order to be a vibrant city you have to have an educated population."

In 2013 it was announced that the City of Memphis would receive up to $200,000 in grant money from the Lumina Foundation to advance these efforts.

The Lumina Foundation aims to increase the number of Americans with degrees and other credentials to 60 percent of the population by 2025 by partnering with communities and national thought leaders and establishing goals and action plans. To bolster the success rate in higher education the Foundation focuses on helping to design and build a more accessible, responsive and accountable higher education system. Memphis joins 19 other cities, including Philadelphia, San Antonio and Boston, in the foundation's rollout initiatives.

The Lumina grant appeared close to the same time as Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, an effort to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials to 55 percent by 2025.

For Memphis that means a big change--adding 144,000 degrees, not counting transfers. But thankfully there are many community players working toward the same goal.

Through the Tennessee Promise law, signed in May of this year, graduating high school seniors will receive two free years of community college or college of applied technology, including tuition and fees, beginning with the class of 2015.

Area universities and higher education institutions set the ball rolling with their own initiatives in the wake of the Complete College Tennessee Act, which ties public universities' and colleges' funding formulas to graduation rates. The University of Memphis looked at students' experiences and made improvements in a tangible way.

"If students connect with their university, they are more likely to stay," says David Cox, University of Memphis Executive Assistant to the President.

The initiatives are varied, but are proving effective: implementing course design changes, providing internships to any student interested, creating living learning centers to house students pursuing similar academic interests and changing the counseling model to follow students' attendance. University metrics are already showing improvements in completion rates.

Then there's the issue of finance.

"We saw students were dropping out because of $400 or $500. It wasn't big, but they weren't able to continue, and once they're out, it's hard to get them back," Cox says. "If $300 prevents them from re-enrolling, we try to find ways to take care of it."

That's how an email from the University of Memphis showed up in Aniysha Tate's inbox asking her to come back and finish her degree for free.

"I thought it was spam. I thought there was no way a school would pay for you to get your degree on their dime," Tate says. "I called, and they told me, 'Yes, you meet the requirements and here's what you need to complete your degree.'"

Tate completed her degree through the university's Finish Line program, which works with students with 90 credits or more who stopped attending school just short of earning their bachelor's degrees. She completed four classes in one month through the University's online instruction model.

"Now my plan to go to law school can actually happen," Tate says.

Southwest Tennessee Community College offers mentorship programs, shadowing experiences, career assessment services and several other new programs to see their students through to the end.

"We are part of a larger movement to empower citizens of Memphis and Shelby County so they can try to be even more self-sufficient and increase their ability to support their family and have a strong future," says Cynthia Calhoun, Southwest's Executive Director of Student Retention and Graduation.

But degree attainment cannot exist without first increasing access to higher education, so programs like Leadership Memphis' SUCCESS High School Initiative were created to support area high school juniors and seniors through their post-secondary pursuits.

"Our high school graduation rate is low, and even with the number of students graduating, there's an even greater percentage with no vision of what will happen after they graduate," says Program Coordinator for SUCCESS Jacqueline Oselen.

Advisors from Leadership Memphis meet with juniors and seniors from eight identified high schools to guide them through financial aid, scholarship and college applications, ACT prep and community service opportunities, as well as the summer before college begins.

Latino Memphis offers similar programs to the Hispanic population, and that support remains available to students involved in the program throughout their college experience.

Another aggregation of programs is specifically tailored to help the adult, "non-traditional" student. Leadership Memphis' subset of Memphis Talent Dividend programs offer help to adult students through their resource center at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. The People First program helps adults earn degrees and certifications that prepare them for local careers.

Back at the Office of Talent and Human Capital, Douglas Scarboro and his fellow supporters continue to gather data and metrics, meet with other cities and organizations on similar paths, and fine-tune a plan to create a talent pool in Memphis that rivals any city.

"If I were to write a headline describing Memphis 10 or 15 years from now, it would read, 'Memphis Listed as Best Place to Work' or 'Memphis Listed as Hub for National Talent,'" Scarboro says.

Little by little, Memphis is working toward that goal, and impacting lives along the way.

"I got a great job as a result of my degree. It's a great company, and I have greater opportunity for growth and achievement. I don't think I would have had this opportunity without my degree. The (University of Memphis) program will change lives. It changed mine," Tate says.
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Read more articles by Lesley Young.