TN Prospers is a non-partisan policy and advocacy group that works with everyone in the community who shares our goal of creating long lasting opportunities for all of our families, from cradle to career. We collaborate with diverse social, civic, and economic leaders to build partnerships, have hard conversations, and foster innovative policy solutions, funding and scaling that will make Tennessee an example for the nation.
All children and families deserve a bright future. We know that when we all work together, our state has the ability to make this a reality. We do this by changing the conversation to focus on what really matters: putting our families first.
Shelby County has led in innovation related to Voluntary Pre-K (VPK) in Tennessee. By going the extra mile in providing wraparound services for all families with children enrolled in VPK, Shelby County is able to reach more low-income families with services such as health screeners, social workers, and other childhood development resources than traditional VPK programs. These services correlate with higher performance outcomes for children in the short- and long-term and yield returns on investment of as high as $10 for every public dollar spent on Pre-K. Some studies suggest, however, that many of the gains associated with early childhood education largely fade by the time a student reaches 3 rd grade. This likely has more to do with the quality of K-12 schools into which these low-income children matriculate, rather than the viability of VPK.
In 2016, Tennessee had 138,100 STEM employees, and this number is projected to increase to 167,950 in 2026 (“The Demand for STEM,” 2). The demand in STEM jobs calls for a future workforce who will be well equipped for those roles. However, Shelby County Schools is facing a great shortage of teachers which has also impacted STEM subjects like math and College and Career Technical Education.
In April of 2020, Public Chapter No. 454 task force dedicated to expanding computer science education throughout the state of Tennessee published a statewide plan featuring policy recommendations. Among six recommended policies, high school access to computer science education has been identified as the priority strategy. The high school computer science education policy recommendations suggest the development of a law that requires each public high school to offer one computer science course out of a selection of courses already approved by the state. It also calls for the design of an implementation plan for computer science course policy so that schools have adequate time to comply with statutory requirements. Since the publication of this statewide plan, none of the recommendations have been adopted or codified into state law.
A majority of Opportunity Youth in Memphis hold High School diplomas or High School equivalencies, and many have acquired at least some postsecondary credits. Currently, there are tens of thousands of open job positions in Shelby County, but the majority of those positions that pay a living wage require some postsecondary degree or a career and technical training credential. Choosing the right career training program can be a difficult decision, given a lack of information provided at the state and local level for students to be able to compare programs. Additionally, many programs are not sufficiently aligned with workforce standards, leaving students with the potential of attending a costly program with no prospects for gainful employment.
In order for Tennessee to realize the full potential of its postsecondary system–as a lever for individual skill building, for social and economic mobility, and to build a competitive workforce–the needs of students from low-income backgrounds will demand policy intervention. Students of low income make up over 60 percent of those enrolled full time at Tennessee’s Community Colleges and Colleges of Applied Technology, and over 40 percent at the state’s public four-year colleges and universities. Meanwhile, these students receive less financial aid from sources such as Tennessee Promise than their more economically-advantaged peers.
Students of low income and with less access to financial aid often confront basic needs insecurity. This manifests as unstable housing or homelessness, poor access to food and nutrition, inability to afford transportation to campus. Such insecurity leads to missed classes, lower grades, withdrawal from school, and ultimately, unfulfilled dreams. Indeed, Tennessee’s college students of low income withdraw at higher rates and fall short of degree attainment more often than students of middle and high income. At a macro level, this risks dragging down degree attainment rates statewide and preventing higher education authorities from achieving the Drive to 55 goal.