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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.

Feb 24, 2020

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 majority of Tennesseans believe that Gov. Lee’s administration should make access and affordability of college and technical training a high priority. Additionally, 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 a 95 percent confidence level.

“The results show that Tennesseans continue to support expanding access to post-secondary education and training,” said Dr. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee. “The fact that 63 percent of Tennesseans believe that an online degree is better than or about the same as a traditional degree program demonstrates a real and welcome shift in perspective and leads to more people earning a post-secondary credential.”

Also worth noting is that an overwhelming majority – 81% – of Tennesseans agree with Gov. Lee’s focus on increasing higher education opportunities in rural areas.

“We absolutely share Gov. Lee’s priorities regarding rural access to education,” said Dr. Estep. “Our ‘Everywhere, TN’ campaign exists to that end, and we’re excited about what the future holds for education in rural counties under Gov. Lee’s leadership.”

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 six 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.

  • Affordability of college and technical training received the highest top-priority rating at 58%, followed closely by access to college and technical training in rural areas and ability of graduates to succeed in the workplace, both at 57%
  • Graduation/completion rates rated the lowest, although nearly half (49%) still say it should be a top priority.

43% believe Gov. Lee should strengthen the Haslam administration’s Drive to 55 initiative by devoting more resources to it, while 30% think it should be kept intact as is; only 12% think it should be replaced with a new approach.

  • Unaided, only 24% said they are familiar with the Drive to 55 initiative. Those who said they were not familiar at all with the initiative increased to 52% this year from 41% in 2019. The number above reflects respondents’ answers after a brief description of the initiative.

A strong majority (61%) 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.

  • 84% of those with a college or postgraduate degree say their college education has been useful in preparing them for a job or career; 52% say very useful, 32% say somewhat useful. Of those with only some college or less, 67% said cost has been an obstacle to completing a college degree, 65% said job or work responsibilities, and 63% cited family responsibilities.
  • 64% think of their current job as a career, while 14% see it as a steppingstone to a career, and 20% say it’s just a job to get them by. Of respondents in the latter two groups, 47% say they need more education and training to get the kind of job or career they would like to have.
  • 63% think online college degree programs are about the same (53%) or better (10%) than a traditional in-person degree program; 30% think they are worse.
  • 66% strongly agree that it is essential to have an educated workforce for Tennessee’s economy to compete with other states, and 26% somewhat agree.


The study used a blended methodology: 350 randomly selected respondents were interviewed by telephone (36% landline, 64% cell phone), and 250 responses were completed through an online sample screened for demographics.

The major demographic groups within the sample were near proportionate to the actual adult populations in Tennessee for gender, region, and race/ethnicity. 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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