How Do You Build the Best-Educated Country?

Persuading people in towns like Dyersburg, Tenn., could be key

Photographs by Trey Clark for The Chronicle

At Dyersburg State Community College, 80 percent of students need remedial help.
April 11, 2010

A few weeks ago, Andrea Franckowiak's phone rang, and Ginger, a former student, was on the other line. She'd called to say thank you.

Ms. Franckowiak, an associate professor of writing at Dyersburg State Community College, in western Tennessee, remembered Ginger well. At a college where four out of five students need at least one remedial class before beginning college-level work, Ginger had struggled more than most. It took her six semesters to pass the college's remedial writing course and move on to Composition I.

But she eventually passed, and as she told her former professor, she went on to get a bachelor's degree from the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Replicating successes like Ginger's many times over is necessary if the United States has any hope of meeting President Obama's goal of becoming the world's best-educated country by 2020. Meeting that goal will also hinge on changing attitudes in states like Tennessee, which has long ranked among the lowest in the nation in the proportion of residents with a college degree, and in places like Dyersburg, a former factory town where educators often struggle to persuade residents that a college degree is no longer a luxury.

Even as state leaders in Tennessee and elsewhere agree on emphasizing the goal of getting more people through college, some college officials question the proposed solutions and whether the emphasis on graduating more people on time is the right measure of success.

"Why is it because you graduate, you're productive?" asked Jane Theiling, director of Dyersburg State's developmental-studies program, and the college's mathematics coordinator. "Why can't you be productive because now you can read to your child?"

Values and Happy Meals

Dyersburg is a town of about 17,000, an hour and a half north of Memphis on state highways that cut through fields of cotton, sod, and soybeans. The town's edges are defined by suburban-style strip malls, vestiges of a building boom in the 1980s, before factories started to close and jobs dried up.

For years many residents have regarded a college degree as little more than a fancy piece of paper. "The culture does not appreciate higher education," said Karen Bowyer, who has been president of Dyersburg State for 25 years.

A high-school degree, or even less, was enough to get a job at the nearby Goodyear tire factory or the Worldcolor printing plant in town. Some residents in the heavily Baptist region distrust a college education because they think it leads students to question their faith, administrators said. In the county where Dyersburg State is located, nearly 18 percent of residents live in poverty, and attending college can be a distant dream for those just trying to get by.

Persuading parents and students that a degree is valuable has become part of the community college's job. In a recent promotion, McDonald's in Dyersburg handed out 50,000 bookmarks that touted the financial value of a college degree to customers who ordered Happy Meals. The bookmarks, provided by the community college, were printed with a chart that listed average income by levels of education, showing residents that they could earn an average of $67,766 with a bachelor's degree and $82,022 with a master's degree, but only $38,837 as a high-school graduate.

College degrees of any kind are rare in northwest Tennessee. One of the seven counties Dyersburg State serves, Lake County, has the lowest proportion of young adults with a college degree of any county in Tennessee—and the fifth-lowest of any county in the nation. Only 5 percent of people ages 25 to 34 have an associate degree or higher, compared with the national average of 38 percent and the statewide average of 31 percent. Even in Dyer County, where Dyersburg is located and where degree attainment is highest among the counties the college serves, only 20 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds have a college degree.

"When I graduated from school, it wasn't hard to get a pretty good job," said Tracey Crossno, 37, who enrolled at Dyersburg State this fall to study nursing after working as a mortgage processor. "I wasn't going to college because it wasn't a priority. I could make money instead of studying."

That attitude is beginning to change, college leaders said, particularly since high-paying manufacturing jobs are leaving the region. But it is still pervasive among older residents.

"We still have a group of people who are the parents and the grandparents who don't see the value of higher education, and they don't encourage the kids," says J. Dan Gullett, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Dyersburg State. "They're still stuck in that era when you can do things besides go to school."

Dyersburg State Community College itself straddles the divide between the future and the past. High-speed Internet access is rare in the region, but the college's math classes use technologically sophisticated graphing programs in new computer labs. Some students have never even seen the Mississippi River, 12 miles away; still, a professor is taking a small group of students to India in May for a three-week trip to study sociology, philosophy, and history.

Sweeping Changes

Three hours east of Dyersburg, in Nashville, state officials are making an all-out push to increase the number of state residents with a college education. Like Mr. Obama with his 2020 goal, the state's leaders want to spur major change in a short period of time.

But Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, is less sanguine than the president about the chances of catching up within a decade. The president's benchmark is "a fine aspirational goal," the governor said in an interview, but probably not achievable. "From where we are, we're not going to be the best-educated country in the world in a decade," Mr. Bredesen said. "In a generation? Maybe. Fifty years? Maybe."

Tennessee has further to go than most states to meet that goal. The state ranks 40th in the proportion of full-time college students who complete a bachelor's degree within six years, and 45th in the proportion of full-time community-college students who complete an associate degree within three years. To contribute its share to meeting the president's 2020 goal, Tennessee would have to raise the average number of undergraduate degrees and credentials it awards each year by 5.9 percent, according to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit group that provides data and advises states and colleges on higher-education strategies.

At the governor's urging, Tennessee made legislative changes this year aimed at improving the state's record on college completion, in part by financing colleges based on their graduation rates.

The state left many of the details, scheduled to take effect for the 2012 fiscal year, to the state's Board of Regents and the state higher-education commission. Governor Bredesen said he hopes that the new law will encourage different types of institutions to develop individual strategies to improve their graduation rates.

The law makes other changes as well. Remedial classes will no longer be offered at four-year universities but will become solely the responsibility of community colleges, a change intended to ensure that students arrive at four-year colleges ready for classes that will count toward a degree. And two-year institutions will be required to offer standardized programs that are the same throughout the system, and to set up transfer and dual-enrollment guidelines to make it easier for students to move to four-year institutions.

"It's pretty clear that they're leading the country," said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, an alliance of states working with nonprofit organizations to achieve President Obama's 2020 goal. Tennessee has joined that effort, as well as other nationwide projects to help more students graduate from college. "This is pretty substantial change," Mr. Jones said. "It's the biggest change I've seen at least in 10 years in higher education."

Governor Bredesen acknowledges there will be challenges ahead for his higher-education goals, including limits on resources for colleges. "Substantial cuts" are coming to higher education in Tennessee after money from the federal stimulus package runs out, he said. But Mr. Bredesen said he hopes the crisis will spur colleges to re-evaluate where they are spending their money, and reassign resources if necessary.

"When times are good, you don't think about these hard things," the governor said. "It's when times get tough you have to sit down and decide what's really important."

Doubts at Dyersburg

At Dyersburg, though, many officials are skeptical about Governor Bredesen's plans for improving education outcomes.

Like many Dyersburg State students, Tina Morris had a long path between enrollment and her degree. She graduated from high school in the spring of 1980 and enrolled at the community college in the spring of 1981. Without finishing her associate degree, she transferred to the University of Tennessee at Martin. Then "a life happened," she said: She dropped out of the university to get married, before returning a few years later. In all, her bachelor's degree took 10 years.

"If you just look at the graduation rate, you're missing the heart of what we do, because I would be one of the ones who is considered unsuccessful," said Ms. Morris, who later earned an M.B.A. and is now vice president for institutional advancement at Dyersburg State.

Three decades after Ms. Morris first enrolled at the community college, many Dyersburg State students continue to follow a similar pattern. Dyersburg State has a three-year graduation rate of 9 percent, slightly below the Tennessee average of 11 percent and well below the national average, 28 percent.

Many students who enroll at Dyersburg State never intend to earn a degree. They come to the community college for specific skills and leave once they can get a better job. "Our mission has not been to graduate large numbers of people," said Larry Chapman, dean of students at Dyersburg State. "Our mission has been to meet their needs, whatever those needs are."

Other students do intend to graduate, but their timeline may not fit into the state's formula for success, based on completing an associate degree in no more than three years or a bachelor's degree in no more than six.

"In a perfect world, where our students have 100-percent supportive family and friends, and they have all the money, and high-speed Internet, and a car that never breaks down, and children who never get sick, and ... they don't have to work two part-time jobs, or a full-time and a part-time job and struggle and deal with everything," the state's time frame "makes perfect sense," said Ms. Franckowiak, the English professor, some of whose students have needed years just to pass a remedial class. "But for real students, it takes a lot longer."

Administrators and professors said the ultimate way to measure Dyersburg State's success is through generational changes. Students, even those who do not graduate, are able to better help their children succeed in school, they said. They are more likely to appreciate education and more likely to engage with civic life and culture.

Governor Bredesen acknowledged that catching up to the rest of the world might take time. "This is something that's been going on for half a century, the decline in the importance of education and the educational performance here, and it's going to take awhile to get us out of it," he said. But Tennessee does not have several generations to wait for change, he said.

By one measure, Dyersburg State is already moving toward the goal of more college graduates: Its enrollment is booming. Enrollment increased by 24 percent for the fall semester, and by 25 percent more for this spring. The college now has more than 4,200 students.

What has made the biggest difference wasn't a bookmark in a Happy Meal, college officials said. It was the thousands of manufacturing jobs that have disappeared from northwest Tennessee in the past decade as factories have downsized or simply closed.

The business leaders who remain are the college's allies in stressing that education is the key to revitalizing their corner of the state. With manufacturing jobs gone, the leaders say, Dyersburg's best hope is to attract new jobs with the promise of an educated work force.

Dyersburg State "is so important to the future economic growth of this area," said David E. Hayes, president of Security Bank in Dyersburg. "It's more evident to me than ever that people who think jobs are going to come back driven by low wages are people who have their heads in the sand."

The governor echoed Mr. Hayes's urgency. He wants colleges to have realistic goals for improving their graduation rates, he said, which will probably vary by institution. But he wants to see the numbers increasing—and soon.

"We've just got to solve this problem," Mr. Bredesen said. "If we don't, if a generation from now we're lagging as far behind the rest of the country as we are today, I think we just get sort of consigned to a backwater status. And that would be a tragedy."