Haslam: Improving Higher Ed Access a 2014 Priority

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he hasn’t finalized the particulars of his legislative agenda for 2014, higher education will clearly be a focus.

Haslam spent Tuesday in Murfreesboro talking up his administration’s efforts to encourage more Tennesseans to pursue an education beyond high school, emphasizing the importance of “higher ed” to economic development for the state.

“Government has a real role. One of the roles is to prepare the workers for the workforce,” Haslam told reporters after his announcement of an equipment grant of $625,007 to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro.

The grant is a portion of the $16.5 million in equipment and technology grants approved by the General Assembly last session for “workforce development programs” at Tennessee higher education institutions, a part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to “increase the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials,” according to a press release.

Haslam said he views these grants as a “great investment” for the state that “will mean even more jobs coming to Tennessee in the future.”

Although the general unemployment in the state is still fairly high, the governor said “we have an impending shortage of skilled laborers in Middle Tennessee.”

In order to address that, and entice more businesses to relocate to the state, Haslam said that one of his administration’s top legislative priorities in the upcoming session will be improving access to higher education. “I think you’ll see a real focus on higher ed; both making certain that we have the job preparation programs, as well as we have to have a way that we can encourage more Tennesseans to attend school after high school, and so I think you’ll see some things around making that more affordable as well,” Haslam said after the grant announcement.

The governor also touted the importance of an increased number of degree-holding Tennesseans as necessary to continue job creation and economic development across the state at a luncheon event with the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce later that day.

The governor went down the list of programs enacted and laws passed in the name of enhancing the state’s economic status, and praised efforts to improve education – both K-12 and post-secondary – along with recently passed tax cuts, workers comp and civil service reform and his administration’s push for more exports.

Although the state’s business climate is one generally approved of by companies looking to relocate, a common complaint has been that Tennessee lacks in workforce development and has consistently ranked somewhere in the “40s” in education nationwide, Haslam said.

But the state has been working to improve that statistic, and with the release of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores last month showing Tennessee as the “fastest growing state in the country,” it appears that the educational improvement efforts have been paying off, the governor said at the luncheon.

“It’s a really big deal when the commissioner of education in New York says, ‘If we work really hard we can be like Tennessee,’” Haslam said. “That’s a big deal, and that hasn’t been said a lot.”