Governor's Rural Opportunity Summit underscores sustained investment in career and technical education, economic and workforce development

Governor's Rural Opportunity Summit

Several presidents of TBR community and technical colleges attended Gov. Bill Lee’s 2023 Rural Opportunity Summit this week, an annual conference he hosts to address the needs of at-risk and distressed counties across the state. The summit brings together local and state leaders to brainstorm innovative solutions to these communities' unique challenges.

“What happens in rural Tennessee matters to all of Tennessee,” said Gov. Lee. “Although rural America has been in decline for decades, rural Tennessee is proving to be the exception, thanks to historic investments in vocational, technical, and agricultural education that are shaping our state’s future workforce. We’ll continue our work to prioritize rural communities so that Tennesseans in every county can thrive.”

The governor cited several key strategic investments that have been made to bolster rural Tennessee, including several through initiatives at the community and technical colleges governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), the state’s largest system of public higher education. The investments through the TBR system he cited include:

  • The Governor's Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act, prioritizing career and technical education in distressed and at-risk counties. GIVE has expanded access to work-based learning, apprenticeship programs, and dual enrollment courses for trade and technical programs.
  • More than $200 million has been allocated to enhance and broaden the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) infrastructure throughout our state.
  • $98 million since 2021 dedicated to the TCAT Enrollment Initiative, which aims to reduce waiting times for students eager to participate in vocational education programs.
  • A historic $1 billion investment to fulfill the TCAT Master Plan, which includes the improvement of 16 existing TCATs, replacing seven outdated facilities, and constructing six new TCATs at strategic locations across Tennessee. 

These investments are significantly contributing to addressing the state's need for a trained workforce and a better-educated population, ensuring Tennesseans are job-ready and better prepared to enter or advance in the 21st-century workforce.

Dr. Michael Torrence, president of Motlow State Community College, who participated in the summit, said the conference “provides a direct line of communication between the Governor’s senior team and Commissioners to the local elected officials, organizations, and technical and community colleges from across Tennessee. The open space provides face-to-face interaction that furthers relationships, support for local needs, and opens up a dialogue for alignment of purpose.”

Why do the TBR institutions have such a big role in improving the state’s economy? “The technical and community colleges of Tennessee serve as accessible pathways to opportunity across the state. We are leveraging our ability to create and implement skills-based programs for business and industry today. Our ability to scale the skills necessary for current and forthcoming jobs continues to be clearly important to Tennessee’s growing economy,” Torrence said.

Other presidents from the system who participated included Northeast State Community College President Dr. Jeff McCord, and from the Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs), Susanne Cox of TCAT Morristown,  Dr. Melody Edmonds of TCAT McMinnville, Dr. David Hicks of TCAT Elizabethton, Dr. Youlanda Jones of TCAT Northwest, Kelli Kea-Carroll of TCAT Hohenwald, Heath McMillian of TCAT Jackson, Stephen Milligan of TCAT Crump, and Cliff Wightman of TCATs Crossville and Livingston. 

Distressed counties are listed annually by the Appalachian Regional Commission using various economic measures for the 423 counties in the ARC region across 13 states, including eastern Tennessee. The state applies the state metrics and data to the rest of the state to determine the economic status of all 95 Tennessee counties. The number of distressed counties in Tennessee has declined to eight. Using the ARC metrics, the state lists another 27 Tennessee counties as “at risk.” All the Tennessee distressed and at-risk counties are in rural areas.

This year's Rural Opportunity Summit took place at the Governor’s Residence in Nashville, allowing county and education leaders to engage and collaborate with the Lee administration.

The TBR system is proud to support these initiatives and is committed to ensuring that all Tennesseans have the opportunity to pursue quality education and gain the skills they need to compete globally.


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.