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By Paul Bradley  /  
2012 February 6 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: A Model for Success

Photo Courtesy Tennessee Technical Centers

Students enrolled in Tennessee Technology Centers know well in advance when they’ll graduate and how much their education will cost.

C O V E R   S T O R  Y

A Model for Success
Tennessee Technical Colleges Offer Clues
To Achieving High Graduation Rates
By Paul Bradley

In some respects, not much has changed since the Tennessee Technology Centers opened their doors in the 1960s.

Then, as now, they focused on applied learning and occupations skills. Then, as now, they worked closely with area employers to produce graduates in areas of economic need. Then, as now, they specialized in education for those whom college passed by, the poor and underprivileged.

Originally called “Area Vocational Technical Schools” and under the purview of the state’s K-12 system, the centers gradually became adult-serving institutions and were placed under the governance of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system. In 1994, they were reorganized and renamed Tennessee Technology Centers.

Today, there are 27 technology centers across the state. They offer programs ranging from traditional occupations like precision machining and welding to emerging fields such as health information technology and computer information technology.

And at a time when higher education is relentlessly focusing on improving student success, the centers boast completion rates far exceeding those of community colleges in Tennessee and the rest of the nation. Even while many of its students come from low-income homes and are the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education, the completion rate was 75 percent in 2009 and the job placement rate was 83 percent.

In contrast, the comparable completion rate in Tennessee’s 13 community colleges was 13 percent. Among 1,145 two-year public post-secondary institutions in the country, only 105 have graduation rates exceeding 50 percent over the past five years based on IPEDS data; all 27 technology centers are included in that group, according to a report by Complete College America.

Increasingly, the centers are being looked upon as a model of how community colleges can do a better job of getting more students to completion. They are being cited as a model for community colleges and four-year schools to follow and emulate.

The centers have been extensively studied by Complete College America, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported think tank devoted to dramatically increasing the nation’s college completion rate through state policy change. In Tennessee, a Lumina Foundation grant is supporting a pilot program examining whether the centers’ success can be replicated at community colleges.

Traditional Model

According to a report by Complete College America and interviews with education officials, the system has achieved the high completion rates by closely hewing to a traditional model which sharply limits student choice, closely ties the dual goals of completion and employment and embeds remedial education in course work.

“The education model represented by the centers contrasts sharply with how conventional postsecondary education — especially public community colleges — have been organized,” the report said. “This model also produces very different results, particularly in terms of student success in completing their programs.”

To be sure, there are critical differences between community colleges and the technical centers. The centers offer one- and two-year diplomas and certificates, not college degrees. They have no liberal arts offerings, and no science courses other than those tied to health care occupations. Each center is accredited as a clock-hour institution, meaning programs are measured by the time a student spends in the overall program, rather than by earning credit hours and progressing from one course to another.

The report questions whether the centers should be called colleges at all and eventually be allowed to offer associate degrees in their technical fields. With about 7 percent of full-time enrollment, the centers represent the smallest component of the state’s higher education system.

Unlike some other states, Tennessee has not integrated its technical and occupational programs into its community college system. That autonomy and distinctiveness is a critical part of the centers’ formula for success, said James King, the Tennessee Board of Regents vice-chancellor for the technology centers.

“I have seen systems that have been merged into community colleges,” he said. “What
I have seen is that completion rates go through the bottom. I wanted
to prevent that from happening.”

There is little question that the centers’ approach is working for students like Tavis Enloe, a 36-year-old who lost his job as a construction worker when the economy bottomed out. Last summer, he earned a certificate in industrial electrical maintenance.

With only a high school diploma and no formal training, his job prospects were bleak when he entered the TTC in Murfreesboro. He had never operated a computer when he enrolled.

“I was terrified,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could learn anything. I had forgotten how to study. I didn’t know how to Google.”

He credits the intensive, highly-structured program offered at the center with helping him earn his certificate, write a resume and prepare for job interviews. Carol Puryear, director of the Murfreesboro center, said, “We like to think that a pink slip is not the end of it all. It can be a beginning.”

Thin Catalog

The centers’ devotion to a highly structured approach is reflected in their course catalog. The catalogs are thin and devoted mostly to policies and information for students. They contain no individual course descriptions, no descriptions of prerequisites, no lists of electives. Each program is described on a single page. When students enroll in a TTC, the Complete College America report notes, “they enroll in a whole program that is fully defined in terms of content, objectives and structure.”

Students typically attend classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, giving them an intensive educational experience and frequent contact with instructors. About the only decisions students must make is what program to enter and whether to attend full- or part-time; they need not design a course of study and construct a class schedule. It is all done for them.

In traditional post-secondary education, that burden falls on students, becoming “a major source of error” that can be repeated year after year, the Complete College America report said. One advantage of a fixed schedule is that students know precisely when they’ll graduate and exactly how much they will have to pay.

Said King: “It is a more focused mentality. It’s no frills. We restrict choice. We lay out their programs. If you follow the model, you can graduate. When you look at first-year college students, it’s very easy to get lost.”

The structured approach was among four elements praised by the Complete College America report. The others:

A competency-based curriculum that blends theory and applied learning. Competencies are based on industry-developed standards and assessment tools. This allows faculty to clearly define and communicate expectations and better manage student the progress.

An approach to remediation that is contextualized to a student’s chosen program of study. The centers don’t offer any developmental courses. Each student entering a center takes a Technology Foundations course, self-paced curricula of basic and intermediate skills. They work toward a readiness certificate peculiar to their field of study. In addition, all students take the course — there are no placement tests — removing the stigma some students feel by being placed in remedial education.

Student support services that are described as an embedded case management system. Faculty, staff and administration maintain a network of information and communication about each student, their progress and their barriers to success.

Community colleges are taking notice of the TTC approach. Under a three-year Lumina Foundation grant, Tennessee community colleges are testing similar, non-traditional credentialing pathways that incorporate the highly structured, cohort-based, block-schedules used by the TTC.

Officials want to know whether the TTC approach will work for fields of study outside of technical and occupational training, such as business management, early childhood education and general education transfer programs.

Paula Short, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said initial results are promising. Some 668 students signed up for the accelerated degrees offered under the Lumina grant, far in excess of the 500 students that college officials expected, she said.

“We don’t want to change the essence of community colleges, but we want to offer students a choice,” she said. “We are trying to create a model so that a student knows what is required when, how much books will cost, when they will complete. There is a market for this.”

Some community colleges in Tennessee offer the block schedule approach, but the Lumina grant represents the first time it has been implemented system-wide, she said. The system is trying to involve faculty at the ground level, since the approach in some respects represents a cultural change for the colleges.

“We think we are on to something,” she said. “We are distinct from the technical centers. But we think we can learn something from them.”

It’s YOUR TURN; CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  What do you think community colleges learn from institutions like the Tennessee Technical Centers?
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