By Mike Christen, writer at The Daily Herald
FRANKLIN — As students attended the second day of classes at Columbia State Community College’s Williamson campus, Gov. Bill Haslam visited the institution Tuesday to discusses the current state of Tennessee’s higher education system and encourage students to continue their academic pursuits.
In front of the college’s main hall, Haslam addressed students and faculty, joined by Columbia State President Janet F. Smith, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, Rep. Charles Sargent R-Franklin and Williamson County Mayor Ken Moore.
“The state needs you,” Haslam said, speaking directly to the students. He said the decision to continue their education will improve the state’s economic future and their own.
“We need to be able to tell companies that are looking at Williamson County and Tennessee, ‘whatever you need, we have them,’” Haslam said.
The governor also encouraged students to work hard and continue taking initiative.
“Of all the jobs that will exist in just seven years, 55 percent of them will require a degree or certificate,” Haslam said. “The old days, what used to be good enough, is not good enough anymore. We really need you to follow through so that by 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will have a degree or certificate.”
Following the speech, Haslam spoke with students, including Austin Thompson, a 20-year-old studying mass communication.
“I just wanted to thank you,” Thompson told Haslam. “The Tennessee Promise has allowed me to stick around here and really find my interest. I really appreciate you finding the funding. I have two more semesters to go, and I will make you proud.”
The Tennessee Promise, a program which began allowing eligible students to attend two years of community college tuition-free in fall 2015, saw an average retention rate of 80.6 across the 16,291 students enrolled in the program in the last two semesters.
The Tennessee Promise is part of Haslam’s larger Drive to 55 initiative to increase the total number of state residents with above high school level educations.
With definite enrollment numbers still pending, a total of students attending Columbia State’s six campuses on the Tennessee Promise remains unclear. Sargent said the Williamson County campus has seen an almost 50 percent increase in enrollment this fall, jumping from 1,300 to 1,900 students.
Sargent credits the dramatic increase to a combination of the new campus and Haslam’s education initiatives.
He and Smith took the governor on a tour of the campus, stopping at the school’s dance studio during a class taught by Director of Commercial Entertainment Cathey Hudnall.
Students took a break from preparing for upcoming auditions by singing “Happy Birthday” to Haslam, who celebrated his 58th birthday on Tuesday.
Nineteen-year-old musical theater student Emma Williams took the lead, counting the students off.
“We didn’t realize who it was because he was standing 20 feet away,” Williams said. “We are actually pretty talented, but we all were terrible.”
After learning about Tennessee Promise, Williams decided to attend community college.
“I knew I wanted to do this program. It was the best thing ever because I can get all my training that I need for free. It’s kind of amazing,” Williams said.
Because she does not have to worry about tuition, Williams said she can afford to travel for auditions across Tennessee and the country. Her next trip — New York City.
“Having the ability to travel to pursue my career is great,” Williams said.
Starting her second year in the program, Williams commended the new facilities, especially the new dance studio.
Other students also shared their thoughts on the new $46 million campus.
“I like that it is a bigger campus,” 19-year-old Ana Pillow, studying arts and language, said. “There is more space for students to converse.”
Beginning her second year at Columbia State this semester, Pillow said she was initially confused about where to attend school, but quickly made her decision when she learned about Tennessee Promise.
Haslam said the new campus was the first approved during his tenure as governor and expressed his gratitude to Smith and others, saying he was indebted to the leaders who made the new campus a reality.
“We are actually leading the nation in applications for our financial aid for college as a result of Tennessee Promise,” Haslam told reporters following his speech. “College can be for everybody no matter what your family background is. You now have an opportunity to go to school.
“We live in an economy where the differences between those who have an opportunity for education and those who don’t is becoming more and more extreme, and so in Tennessee if we can give people that equal opportunity, we can address some of the bigger long term issues facing the country.”