KINGSPORT — Work force development is about a walk across a stage, East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland told Tennessee Valley Corridor Summit attendees Monday.
Noland said only 19 out of every 100 Tennessee ninth-graders are walking across a stage to receive a college degree.
“If there is any one statistic that we need to change in order to be competitive as a region and as a nation, it’s that out of every 100 ninth-graders, more than 19 need to walk across a stage and receive a degree,” Noland stressed at the summit for business and government leaders held at the MeadowView Marriott.
At ETSU’s fall commencement this Saturday, Noland noted 1,500 students will receive a degree — but 80 percent of them will exit college with an average debt load of $20,000.
While student borrowing has gone up, state government’s monetary support for higher education has gone down, according to Noland.
“At the beginning of the last decade, about 60 cents on the dollar (for higher education) came from the state. ... At the end of the decade, that number had moved to 46 cents,” Noland said. “Prior to the economic downturn, every state in the union was facing structural budget challenges. ... Our ability to fund our institutions was at a point of jeopardy prior to the downturn, and that has been exacerbated as we moved through the downturn. ... We’re doing a relatively decent job managing our resources.”
Two years ago, state lawmakers decided to tie higher education funding to graduation rates instead of enrollment.
At this point, Noland said Tennessee ranks ninth in the South in people with college degrees.
But Noland also stressed the region is well-positioned to take advantage of growing health care jobs.
“We are in a sweet spot here in Northeast Tennessee with Wellmont (Health System) and Mountain States (Health Alliance) and with the medical school at East Tennessee State University,” Noland said.
“We are in the catbird seat in terms of our ability to produce and grow job opportunities.”
ETSU will have a presence in downtown Kingsport’s Academic Village this July, while its “Committee For 125” visioning effort calls for more partnering with business and other education institutions, Noland said.
After Noland spoke, Kingsport Times-News Publisher Keith Wilson shared the story of the city’s creation of that Academic Village and “Educate and Grow” scholarship with attendees.
“We wanted to do three things: Revitalize the downtown area, retain our youth and increase the education level,” Wilson explained.
“The city would fund the tuition of all high school graduates who continued their education with the community college if the college would provide instruction downtown. ... Now there are over 2,000 (students downtown). ... Kingsport’s vital signs are showing improvement.”
The summit’s host was U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, who said that despite work force development efforts, the national economy still has an unemployment rate of more than 7 percent.
“We need to create 350,000 jobs a month for the next three years to get down to six percent,” Roe, R-Tenn., said.
“But opportunity is before us ... if we had a coherent energy policy. By having inexpensive energy, you can re-create an opportunity to have manufacturing return to this country. ... It’s right there in front of us.”
But Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, said there are about three million job openings that can’t be filled because of the lack of skilled workers.
She also offered up what she called “sobering data” — that Tennessee is 43rd in math and 40th in reading.
Woodson, a former state senator, said Tennessee’s raised standards for high school graduates — which include taking four years of math — are yielding positive results.
“We’re either going to transform K-12 and higher education or fall further behind,” she told attendees.
For more about the summit go to www.tennvalleycorridor.org.