In Tenn., A Possible Model For Higher Education

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The typical college student today isn't "typical" anymore: Only 1 in 4 lives on campus and studies full time.

But part-timers and commuter students are much less likely to finish — most part-time students are still without a degree or a certificate after eight years. Higher education is desperately looking for strategies that improve those numbers. There might be one in Tennessee.

Many higher-ed institutions brag about all the choices they offer: lots of courses and majors to choose from, pick your own schedule. But for some students, choice can be the enemy, says James King, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Technology Centers, a state-supported career-training program with 27 locations strung across the state.

"We do not use the Burger King Approach — 'Have it your way' — because, most of the time, employers do not have that approach," he said. "You work according to a schedule they set."

'Scared To Death'

Carol Puryear is the director (and den mother, you might say) of the Murfreesboro Center, not far from Nashville. She and the other staff do a lot of hand-holding to make sure students get to their goal — a certificate and a job. Many community college programs let students pick and choose classes, but once they sign up at a Technology Center their class schedule is decided for them.

"They decide on the program and they decide if they want to be full time or part time and that's pretty much it," Puryear said.

Students don't have to worry that their schedule might change from semester to semester. For the 16 months she's enrolled, student Heidi Khanna knows exactly when she has to show up for her drafting courses: 7:45 to 2:30 Monday through Friday.

Attendance is taken and makes up about a third of your grade. It's a lot more like high school than the typical on-again-off-again schedule of many college students.

Khanna is working on a computer-aided design program. Yes, architecture is in a slump, but she's also getting the skills to move into mechanical drawing. The Technology Centers work closely with advisers from local businesses to keep their programs in sync with economic reality. That's one reason why around 8 in 10 students finish and get a job in their field — amazing statistics for any higher-ed institution. But it's still scary leaving the nest.

"I'm scared to death," Khanna says laughing. "I don't know, scared of change, you know, just getting back out into the workforce."

Khanna already has a degree — but her associate of arts in liberal studies wasn't getting her the work she wanted, so she's starting over at age 39. Other students plan to use their certificates to get a job to pay for more schooling.

Working With Industry

Jeremy Miller, 23, already has an offer to be a surgical technician. His earnings will rise to around $40,000 a year.

"That'll do for me," he said. "That's better than what I'm making now."

He laughed when asked how much that is. "Nothing," he said.

"Next August I plan on starting where I left off the first time I went to school with my prerequisites, to start my bachelor's degree in biology and then hopefully off to med school after that," he said.

Transferring to a new school is a big challenge for many students, but the Technology Centers have good arrangements with other colleges so students can continue without losing credits.

The centers have followed much the same program for more than 40 years, and it's actually pretty old school: create a closely knit program, like a small Ivy League college. Now, as more schools realize just how bad college completion rates are, they're looking in this direction.

Next September, the City University of New York will open a brand new school called The New Community College, with Scott Evenbeck as president.

"We've designed a curriculum and core curriculum that everyone will go through together," Evenbeck said. "And the students will all be, at least in the first year, enrolled full time."

These schools are building on evidence that shows many students simply take the wrong classes or they can't get into the right ones; either way, they waste time and money. The longer they take, the more likely they are to drop out. The New Community College will start with a summer program that introduces students to the school and one another.

"Then when they come in the fall, they'll have an intact schedule where a cohort of students will take everything together," Evenbeck said.

There are signs this approach has promise for one- and two-year students. The question is whether these tightly focused programs have something to teach bigger four-year schools, where graduation rates are also pretty low.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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