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Education will make or break economy: Tennessee Gov. Haslam

Tennessee is the first state to guarantee two years of tuition-free community or technical college and mentorship to high school graduates.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam
Source: Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

In 2012 it became clear to leaders across Tennessee that conversations about economic development were becoming conversations about education.

Our administration's work with national think tanks and economists at our universities showed we would need 55 percent of Tennesseans to have a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025 to keep our economy growing. At the time, only 32 percent of our citizens held such a credential. It was clear Tennessee needed to change the conversation around going to college and raise our expectations.

Our administration, in cooperation with our state legislature, universities and education advocates, created the Drive to 55 initiative to take Tennessee to that 55 percent mark. In 2014 I signed into law Drive to 55's milestone piece of public policy, the Tennessee Promise.

Tennessee Promise guarantees two years of tuition-free community or technical college and mentorship to high school graduates. It is the first program of its kind in the country.

Two years later the results in Tennessee have been tangible and a testament to the value the global business community places on education in the 21st century. Every early indicator suggests young people statewide are embracing the new opportunity offered by the Tennessee Promise.

  • First-time freshman enrollment at public institutions in Tennessee increased by an unheard-of 10.1 percent between 2014 and 2015.
  • Similarly, the college-going rate for the class beginning in the fall of 2015 was 62.5 percent — an unprecedented 4.5 percentage point increase from the fall of 2014.
  • Tennessee has also become the leading state in the nation for high school seniors completing the FAFSA, with 68 percent of the 2015 class submitting the form.

Business leaders across the world have responded in kind, showing their belief in Tennessee's future by voting with their checkbooks.

In 2015 our Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development secured a record number of job commitments for our state. Companies committed to bring 25,837 jobs to Tennessee through our economic development projects, the largest number in our state's history.

"General Motors executives told us this year that the Tennessee Promise and our state's commitment to education is a primary reason they continue to invest in our state and create jobs."

Confidence in Tennessee is also reflected in our unemployment numbers. From May 2015 to May 2016, Tennessee's unemployment rate decreased to 4.1 percent, down from 5.8 percent.

We know through our conversations with executives that our investment in education is giving them the confidence to locate and grow in Tennessee. In fact, General Motors executives told us this year that the Tennessee Promise and our state's commitment to education is a primary reason they continue to invest in our state and create jobs.

Tennessee Promise is not only a game-changing piece of policy for Tennessee, it is redefining how other states and the federal government view post-secondary education. And that can only be a win for business.

— By Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Editor's note: This commentary was written before the release of the Top States 2016 data. The governor did not have knowledge of the rankings or the comprehensive data.