Four Tennessee community colleges are Reimagining the Community College Experience to improve student success and outcomes

Four Tennessee community colleges are Reimagining the Community College Experience

Four Tennessee community colleges are in the process of implementing self-designed pilot plans for Reimagining the Community College Experience – a Tennessee Board of Regents initiative to improve student success through more extensive career exploration, career advising and a workforce-focused certificate in a student’s first semester.

Jackson State, Pellissippi State, Southwest Tennessee and Walters State community colleges were selected to launch three-year pilots carrying out the initiative’s goals. The TBR system office invited colleges to design and submit their own proposals for implementing key elements of the initiative outlined in a concept paper drafted by TBR’s Office of Policy and Strategy.

Eleven colleges submitted proposals. “The four selected were bold, comprehensive and best captured the ideas and pillars presented in the concept paper, and each had a thorough and robust approach to implementing the main elements,” TBR Chancellor Flora W. Tydings said.

During the current academic year, the four colleges are refining details and planning for implementation of their pilots before rolling them out to students in the Fall 2023 semester. From that point, they have three years to demonstrate success at improving student outcomes, If successful, the Board of Regents would consider broader implementation.

TBR is awarding the colleges a total of $2.2 million in grants to help implement their plans.

The four colleges and the framework of their pilots:

  • Jackson State Community College: Partner with American Job Center on pre-college career interests; front-load courses in the first semester/year into “career clusters” that lead to a workforce-focused certificate for all first-time freshmen; redesign the first-year experience course.
  • Pellissippi State Community College: Help students find their “why” through expanded K-12 partnerships for early career exploration and advising, their path with clear curricular and co-curricular experiences, their team with dedicated student success teams by career community; and their future by introducing workforce ready certificates in first semester/year for all first-time freshmen.
  • Southwest Tennessee Community College: Focusing on first-time freshmen and opportunity youth, the Southwest Workforce Solutions Center establishes seamless pathways from workforce development programming to technical certificates and degree programs. Southwest will develop hands-on career exploration opportunities, expand career coaching, and restructure courses to incorporate work-ready credentials or certificates into the first semester and/or first year of courses.
  • Walters State Community College: The Bettering Attainment for Designations leading to Gains in Education/Employment (BADGE) program, which incorporates more robust career exploration and assessment, redesigned first-year experience courses, and incorporating embedded certificates in the first semester for traditional and adult learners.

Before the three-year pilots are completed, TBR leadership plans to involve all 13 community colleges over the next several months in a learning community discussing reforms and innovations that can address student success and workforce development challenges, said Dr. Russ Deaton, TBR executive vice chancellor for policy and strategy.

“All of the proposals were intriguing and it was wonderful to see the creativity and reform ideas that emerged from this process,” said Deaton. “Most colleges indicated they intend to pursue some of the ideas they proposed regardless whether they were selected for the first pilots, and TBR staff will work to support their efforts.”

About the Reimagining the Community College Experience initiative

As described in the concept paper, one of the longstanding pursuits of the TBR system – and part of its 2015-2025 Strategic Plan – is a strong connection between academic programs and workforce development. Preparing students for careers and promoting their economic mobility requires constant attention to economic trends, workforce needs, and the content of academic programs. This dynamic is not limited to certificates and workforce training programs. The role of community colleges in preparing students with associate degrees designed to transfer to a university helps propel them on their journey to a bachelor's degree and beyond.

At TBR community colleges, this alignment between academic programs and workforce development is reflected in their "dual mission." Colleges both prepare students for transfer to a university through the associate degree and provide workforce training options for students through applied associate degrees, certificates, and a variety of non-credit activities.

Campus ingenuity and hard work, combined with state-level policy, have put Tennessee on the path to meet its Drive to 55 educational attainment goal (at least 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans equipped with a college credential by 2025), as community colleges have made sustained progress in improving student success over the past decade. Community colleges have produced a record number of credentials over the last few years while doubling graduation rates.

There is, though, significant work to be done to improve student success, and the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the need for higher education to find creative ways to serve students, communities, and business and industry.

TBR is committed to supporting community colleges' dual mission by ensuring all students have the opportunity to pursue whatever pathway they choose, whether that be an associate degree for transfer to a university or a workforce-ready credential. The student's experience, though, could be reconceptualized by resequencing the coursework that students encounter and introducing a workforce-ready credential as their first and foundational experience.

The concept paper provides that students would encounter in-depth support for career exploration before enrolling. This intensive advising would be designed to assist students in selecting a broad career area and would continue throughout students' educational careers.

Then, upon enrolling, students would encounter a reimagined sequence of coursework. This course sequence, which would be in various fields identified by the college (information technology, health sciences, business/accounting, and logistics, for examples) that align with local and regional workforce needs, would allow a student to earn a certificate in their first semester, preparing them in some capacity to enter the workforce and start a career. This certificate would also be the foundational building block for students by articulating into an associate of arts (AA), associate of science (AS), or associate of applied science (AAS) degree.

Any student could declare and pursue an associate degree. However, the first step in that journey would be a foundational, workforce-ready credential. These certificates, which will either articulate into an AAS, AA, or AS degree or provide a stand-alone credential that allows for transition into the workforce, will form the foundation of each student's first community college semester. The second semester would either extend the workforce-related training through stackable certificates or introduce general education courses that build toward applied associate degrees or associate degrees designed to transfer to a university.

More details about the Reimagining the Community College Experience, including the concept paper and the key elements in the initiative, are available on the TBR website at


The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 24 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 140,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.