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Survey: Tennesseans Want Sustained Commitment to Higher Ed

Statewide poll explores opinions on a wide range of important higher education topics.

Mar 6, 2019

NASHVILLE – A large majority of Tennesseans think Gov. Bill Lee should devote as much or more time and resources on higher education and workforce development as did his predecessor, Gov. Bill Haslam, according to a statewide survey commissioned by WGU Tennessee.

The survey also found that a large majority of Tennesseans believe that Gov. Lee’s administration should make access and affordability of college and technical training a high priority, and a majority think state government should do more to ensure public school students are prepared for college-level work, while almost half say the state should increase its funding for college education.

The study, conducted by the Dallas-based market research firm Dynata, surveyed 600 randomly selected registered voters who are currently employed to gauge attitudes and opinions regarding higher education issues, including financial aid for traditional and online degree programs. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

“The results show there is solid support for helping more Tennesseans have access to post-secondary education and training,” said Dr. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee, a state-endorsed online nonprofit university. “They also show that online degree programs are rated highly for quality.”

A majority, 58 percent, think online degree programs are about the same as or better than traditional, in-person programs.

Dr. Estep said WGU Tennessee plans to do annual tracking surveys to compare results against the benchmark 2019 study. “The information is not only useful for WGU Tennessee, but we think it is also of interest to others involved in higher education, to legislators and policy makers, and to the general public.”

Key findings.

Other survey findings.

Respondents were asked to rate five areas of possible focus on higher education and workforce development in terms of whether each should be a top, middle or low priority for the Lee administration.

  • Ability of graduates to succeed in the workplace received the highest top-priority rating at 63%, followed closely by access and affordability of college and technical training, at 61%.
  • College readiness rated the lowest, although a majority (51%) still say it should be a top priority.

41% believe Gov. Lee should strengthen the Haslam administration’s Drive to 55 initiative by devoting more resources to it, while 36% think it should be kept intact as is; only 12% think it should be replaced with a new approach, and 4% think it should be ended entirely.

  • Unaided, only 32% said they are familiar with the Drive to 55 initiative (7% very familiar and 25% somewhat familiar), 28% have heard of it but are not familiar with it, and 41% said they are not familiar with it at all.

A strong majority (62%) think Tennessee state government should do more to ensure public school students are prepared for college-level work, while 26% say it is doing a good job at the current level.

  • 85% of those with a college or postgraduate degree say their college education has been useful in preparing them for a job or career; 47% say very useful, 38% say somewhat useful. Of those with only some college or less, 68% said job or work responsibilities have been an obstacle to completing a college degree, 63% cited family responsibilities, and 62% cited costs; 58% cited student loan debt as a factor.
  • 60% think of their current job as a career, while 12% see it as a steppingstone to a career, and 26% say it’s just a job to get them by. Of respondents in the latter two groups, 41% say they need more education and training to get the kind of job or career they would like to have.
  • 58% think online college degree programs are about the same (47%) or better (11%) than a traditional in-person degree program; 31% think they are worse.
  • 64% strongly agree that it is essential to have an educated workforce for Tennessee’s economy to compete with other states, and 29% somewhat agree.


The study used a blended methodology: 350 randomly selected respondents were interviewed by telephone (35 percent landline, 65% cellphone), and 250 responses were completed through an online sample screened for demographics.

The major demographic groups within the sample were at or near proportionate to the actual adult populations in Tennessee: female 53%, male 47%; Middle Tennessee 38%, East Tennessee 37%, and West Tennessee 25%; white 81%, African-American 11%, and Hispanic/Other 5%; 18–34 years old 18%; 35–44 years old 23%; 45–64 years old 49%, and 65 and older 10%. Because the sample was screened for registered voters and those currently employed, the 18–34 age group was underrepresented and the 45–64 age group was slightly overrepresented. Also, African-Americans were slightly underrepresented.

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