Dean's goal of doubling city's college grads won't come easily

Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 10:05pm
Karl Dean 

In an inauguration speech that skimmed a potpourri of topics and leaned on the familiar mantra of  “education, public safety and economic development,” Mayor Karl Dean said something two Fridays ago he never had before: Nashville should double its number of college graduates –– in just five years. 

“I’m setting a marker on this today,” Dean told a few hundred onlookers, sharing the stage with a newly elected crop of Metro Council members. “Our city needs to double our number of college graduates. The experts say this should take 10 years. I see no reason why we should not try to do it in five.” 

Using the podium to discuss public education is nothing new for Dean, who begins his second term with an unchanged reality when it comes to that topic: As a school district with all the inherent challenges of an urban setting, Metro Nashville Public Schools and its 78,400 students –– three-fourths of whom qualify for federal free and reduced lunches –– continue to lag behind the state in test scores. Metro students, for example, earned a composite score of 18.1 on the ACT in 2011, nearly a full point lower than the state average. 

Discussing his goal in an interview with The City Paper, Dean logically tied how more citizens holding college diplomas can enhance the economic vibrancy of a community. 

“Cities that have a higher number of college graduates in their population see the income of the city go up and the gross metropolitan product go up as well,” Dean said. “It’s also important for individuals. Having more of our young people go to college –– whether it’s a four-year school or a two-year school or a trade school –– they are putting themselves on the career paths that help them have a  better life.” 

Lacking direct governance of the school system –– he isn’t the superintendent –– Dean has to be creative in using his office to try to nudge Metro schools forward. In his first term, that meant luring Teach for America to Nashville, helping launch a new attendance center to curb truancy, planting seeds for a new charter incubator to help grow the publicly financed, privately run schools here, and kick-starting a new after-school program. 

Dean’s new announcement –– spurred by what he called a “certain sense of urgency” –– outlined an actual yardstick, and there are a few ways to unpack the challenge. 

First, there’s the 20.6 percent of all Davidson County adults who hold a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released 2010 American Community Survey data. That places Nashville below comparable cities like Austin, Texas, Denver and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., cities with 27.4, 25.4, and 31.3 percent of their populations holding bachelor’s degrees, respectively. In contrast, Nashville’s mark is above the 17.9 percent of Memphis. Associate degrees or other graduating certificates are not included in these figures. 

Another way to comprehend Dean’s target is to zero in on MNPS itself. The district’s data shows 25 percent of Metro’s 2004-05 graduating class went on to earn college degrees within six years after completing high school. Of course, that data doesn’t factor in thousands of Nashville students who never completed high school. Moreover, not all of these college graduates reside in Nashville. 

Either way, Nashville is facing a strong headwind to meet Dean’s marker, new research suggests. 

Just days following Dean’s inauguration, the nonprofit Complete College America –– funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation –– released a national report that reveals while young people are enrolling in college in greater numbers, there’s been little headway in actually graduating. 

“The good news is that most kids in this country and their families have come to understand that high school isn’t high enough,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice president of Complete College America. He pointed out 70 percent of people pursue some sort of further education within two years of exiting high school. 

“We’ve been focused so long and hard on access –– making sure all Americans have access to college education –– that we’ve succeeded, by and large,” he said. “Where we’ve failed is in the success part of the equation. It’s become access with no success.” 

With the cooperation of 33 governors, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, the non-profit’s study offered a new take on analyzing college graduation. Unlike the federal government, which looks solely at first-time, full-time students, Complete College America analyzed the graduation figures of part-time, Pell Grant and other nontraditional college students. Part-time students represent 40 percent of the nation’s college students. 

The nonprofit categorizes what it dubs a “new American majority.” In the past, the archetypal college student lived on campus and attended full time. This group, however,  represents only 25 percent of college students today. The rest –– the new majority –– are commuting, attending part time or balancing school with families, Sugar said. 

Counting all students –– many with complicated lives –– the numbers are troubling. For every 100 students in Tennessee who enrolled at a public college or university, 46 started at a community college. Of those, only two graduated on time, and 11 graduated in four years. For the 54 Tennessee students who enrolled directly in a four-year college, 17 graduated on time and 33 graduated after their eighth year.

In all, only 31 percent of Tennessee’s 25-34 year-olds have an associate’s degree or higher. 

Back in Nashville, Dean told The City Paper efforts to increase the number of Nashville college graduates is focused chiefly on the outcomes of Metro students. That begins, he said, with ensuring students first graduate high school. He referenced the new attendance center, aimed at lowering truancy rates, and middle school after-school programs that work to keep kids engaged. 

Dean also discussed possibly expanding “One Step Ahead,” a dual-enrollment program he unveiled two years ago that offers scholarship funds to Metro students who elect to take some college courses. He also said Metro dollars set aside to assist in creating a new Antioch-area campus for Nashville State Community College can help alleviate that school’s current overcrowding and cater to additional Southeast Davidson County students. 

Though Dean’s call to raise the number of college graduates seems lofty, it enjoys the backing of key education stakeholders and leaders. 

In its Partnership 2020 initiative, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce –– which often has goals that align with Dean’s –– reported the Nashville region lags behind many peer communities in terms of the proportion of residents who have an associate’s degree or higher. 

Marc Hill, the chamber’s chief education officer, called Dean’s aim to increase Nashville’s college graduates an “ambitious goal,” but one guided by the right focus: “Our workforce projections show that over a 10-year period, we’re projected to have a gap in the number of skilled workers. 

“The bottom line is: We need to increase the number of adults with degrees in our region,” Hill said. “We project a gap of 22,000 workers with the right skills and knowledge for the next 10 years.” 

From the district’s perspective, Director of Schools Jesse Register, contracted to lead MNPS through 2015, said increasing college graduates is a “great initiative,” one the city should embrace as a community. 

“There aren’t any quick fixes to doing that,” Register said. “You don’t turn that around real fast. But I know the mayor and I have had conversations –– and I’ve talked to a lot of folks in the business community –– that there are many technology jobs that are coming to the area. What we have to do is increase the number of people who are qualified to fit these jobs.”

Register said the district tries to instill a “10-year plan” into all its students, with hopes of getting kids thinking past high school and even beyond post-second school.

Students who have the most difficulty finishing college are minorities, especially those who came from low-income families. Language can also be a barrier. And in Nashville, 22 percent of the school district’s students come from non-English-speaking homes. Ten percent of Metro’s student body are
considered English language learners, who by law must still learn subjects like math and science in English. Most English learners are economically disadvantaged.  

The district’s Alan Coverstone, whose previous role was solely to oversee Metro’s charter schools, was recently tapped to lead Metro’s new “Office of Innovation,” composed of 10 low-performing Nashville schools, many in some of the city’s most impoverished and ethnically diverse areas. 

“Essential to our mission is to be able to prepare kids to take advantage of college,” Coverstone said. “Really, college and career skills are indistinguishable now. We’re absolutely, 100 percent committed in this office to increasing the number of college-ready graduates, especially low-income college-ready graduates in Nashville.”  

18 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 10/3/11 at 3:36

Karl Dean is confused.

If hizzoner wants more sheepskin-bearing residents to reside in Davidson County he should fight back against the reactionary forces of backwoods conservatism, instead of embracing those backward views.

The bitter fight over the recently enacted local GLBT anti-discrimination ordinance, that was scuttled by the TN state legislature, reveals the depth of prejudice still residing in the Volunteer state. That sort of mean-spirited hate discourages people with college degrees from settling in the area.

The guns in bars laws also give the Nashville area a hazardous wild West image and that image probably discourages college-educated professionals from moving to Davidson County.

The embrace of Tea Party ideology, such as the anti-science Creationism agenda, adds to the region's reputation for Southern anti-intellectualism.

The anti-organized-labor statutes also contribute to the image of TN as a scab state, where a man's labor is looked upon with contempt.

Those are just a few of the impediments to reaching the stated goal. The main impediment may be the mayor himself.

By: Loner on 10/3/11 at 3:48

Mayor Dean wants to increase the number of "publicly financed, privately run schools", according to this article. That sounds like corporate welfare, wealth redistribution and an end-run around the public aid to religious schools statutes. Mayor Dean, the putative fiscal conservative, acts like a spendthrift liberal on projects dear to his heart....high hypocrisy.

By: richgoose on 10/3/11 at 6:35

This is just political talk by Karl Dean. He wants education and the people who need education want "free stuff"

By: BigPapa on 10/3/11 at 7:24

You might want to look at the most conservative area of Middle TN (Williamson Co.) and see that it has many many many more college grads than those that are more inclined to your party.

As usual, you're just talkin' outta your @$$.

By: govskeptic on 10/3/11 at 7:29

Is this new initiative toward degrees to come after or before the Mayor
gets us to the right weight and health? Hopefully he will not push for
more Law or Sociology degrees as the city is overrun with those in
City, State, and Federal Governments! Will these new students be
steered toward TSU or Nashville Tech? Has the Council signed off on
paying the tuition with taxpayer dollars? Are the high schools up to
providing students that can pass the entrance exams for the masses?
Will be interested in hearing or reading the small print at later date!

By: MusicCity615 on 10/3/11 at 7:29

Thank you Karl Dean for being very ambitious as Mayor and setting standards that will improve our city.

By: BellevueBill on 10/3/11 at 7:54

To achieve this goal, the city needs to attract empoyers like Apple, Intel, etc. Building convention centers is not the answer.

By: macjedi on 10/3/11 at 8:09

Yeah, Apple is just CHOMPING at the bit to move to Nashville. Please.


I am sure Dean's interest in education will continue to be ignored by the hillbillies who tend to oppose him at every turn. That darn Dean and his progressive ideals...


By: JeffF on 10/3/11 at 8:28

A logic flaw early is saying Metro is only 1 point below the state average on the ACT. Some have pointed out that the state average would be closer to or even higher than 20 if we could somehow find a way to exclude the two urban districts from the state statistics. If we want to catch up with the rest of the state we will have to do better than just a single point.

I do find it interesting and tragic being compared to Austin and Raleigh, two cities that went all in on technology parks and innovation. The Deaniacs instead chose to go all in on tourism. Which strategy is going to create jobs with high pages and less dependent on cyclical economics?

By: nash615 on 10/3/11 at 8:32

For once I can say without reservation "here's to His Honor."

Simply reading the City Paper comment threads is sufficient proof to most sheepskin holders that education should be a top civic priority for Nashville. I for one would donate cash to a scholarship fund that would get CP frequent commenters into a degree program.

By: san r on 10/3/11 at 9:00

more revenue and job security for the elite, nothing really promised for the grad unless you know somebody who knows somebody. if it has changed since i had Dury's wood frame my degree and hung it on my den wall, thirty-eight ago, then i apologize for making inconsiderate remarks.
with my limited perception, i perceive nashville as a depressed and drugged-out city. we use to smoke a lil pot, drink a lil boone farm, dom p. and others but we did it for fun not for suicidal purposes. i still try to get out each day and enjoy my side of town but you can see and feel the poverty of mind, body and spirit as you make your way in and out of your lil pit-stops wasting money on lottery, beer, cigs, lil gas etc just trying to liven your own lil world up the best way you can. it's sad.

By: yogiman on 10/3/11 at 9:28

Well, he had to say something that sounded good... didn't he?

By: BigPapa on 10/3/11 at 9:31

Dean needs to worry about Nashville being a place that college grads come to, not flee from. We cant be a city of housing projects, and waiters and waitresses, while the middle managers and CEOs are in Wmson, Wilson, and Sumner County.

By: MusicCity615 on 10/3/11 at 11:41


The "all-in" investment in technology for Austin was initiated years ago. Not recently, and you know it.

However, I do agree with you that I wish that we would invest in more technology-driven jobs.

By: JeffF on 10/3/11 at 11:51

nash615 assumes that people with college degrees as being progressive. Since the people on this site he disagrees with are not progressive in their posts he assumes that means we do not have college degrees.

Since progressive attitudes are prevalent in the rotting urban cores of U.S. cities and since these decaying urban centers have been pretty much absent of highly educated people you would think that the logical solution would be to educate up and break the cycle of progressive poverty.

Here is a clue for the uninformed; the people with the money, the ones moving to the suburbs to get their kids in good schools and to get away from the huddled masses yearning for a handout, they are the educated. If they weren't educated they would still be in Nashville. Education allows people to better see the decay of the cities.

I am educated with a very good accounting and economics background, I chose to escape the urban core rot but remain in Davidson's. It is probably time for me to move all the way out of this cesspool of good progressive intentions just like the rest of the educated and well off. Nashville's elected leaders don't seem to care what it takes to be a glowing city on the hill. They simply want to be "fair" to the disadvantaged and bring in tourists. Nashville needs more than a fresh coat of paint to be Austin or Raleigh. It needs a change in attitude. Right now Nashville's policies are more of the Memphis/Detroit/St Louis variety than the Austin/Raleigh type.

Cant wait for that convention center to open so Nashville's problems will finally be solved once and for all. It is Nashville's biggest and most expensive civic project so it must be solving our biggest problems.

By: JeffF on 10/3/11 at 11:54

never said their investments were recent. Just said that the made that investment decision. We apparently chose to put all our money into a convention center so part-time banquet servers could have some money.

Invest in high paying jobs or invest in the hospitality industry? Boy did we elect a Boner.

By: govskeptic on 10/3/11 at 1:38

Musiccity615 & twin@ nash615

The posters on this site may have hold just as many degrees and possible
higher than your own. Disagreeing or commenting on the actions of "His
Lordship" on some projects within the city is my personal pleasure on some
occasions. Our differences may be in the form of my looking at a tax bill
while you are looking at a Metro Pay stub!

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