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March 14, 2021

Survey: Majority of Tennesseans Want Increased Rural Access to Higher Ed Opportunities

Overwhelming support for increased affordability, access to higher education

NASHVILLE – Seventy-eight percent of Tennesseans are in support of Gov. Bill Lee’s focus on increasing higher-education opportunities in rural areas of the state, according to a new survey commissioned by WGU Tennessee.

Along with access, a majority of respondents also think affordability of college and technical training programs should be a high priority for the state. A majority of respondents (53%) say state funding for higher education should be increased, and 69 percent agree that the state’s HOPE scholarships should be available to those enrolled in all state-approved online universities.

“The results show there is still solid support for assisting Tennesseans’ success in postsecondary education, even amid a pandemic,” said Dr. Kimberly Estep, chancellor of WGU Tennessee. “Not only do Tennesseans believe higher education is as important as ever, but they want increased access to it as well.”

A large majority of respondents, 89 percent, believe that, in order for the economy to compete with other states, there is a need to have a more educated workforce.

Dr. Estep said WGU Tennessee plans to continue annual tracking surveys to compare results against this year and the benchmark 2019 study. “The information continues to benefit not only WGU Tennessee, but those involved in higher education, legislators and policymakers, and the general public.”

Among the key findings of the survey:

  • A majority of respondents (53%) think Tennessee state government should increase its funding for college education, while only 7% think it should be decreased; 35% favor keeping it at its current level.
  • Only 39% think Tennessee colleges and universities provide adequate financial aid for students, while 21% think they do not; 41% do not have an opinion.
  • Roughly 69% agree that the state’s HOPE scholarships should be available to those enrolled in all state-approved online universities rather than only online programs offered by two- and four-year colleges in Tennessee.
  • More than three-fourths (78%) of respondents say they support Gov. Lee’s focus on increasing higher-education opportunities in rural areas of the state. However, only 52% say it should be a top priority after respondents were given a battery of six areas and asked to rate each one in terms of whether they should be a top, middle or low priority for Gov. Lee. Three out of five say that affordability of college and technical training should be a top priority, and 50% agree that ensuring the ability of graduates to succeed in the workplace should be a top focus.
  • 89% agree that, for Tennessee’s economy to compete with other states, it is essential that the state have an educated workforce.
  • A majority thinks that online college degree programs are better than (10%) or about the same as (44%) traditional, in-person degree programs.
  • Just over a quarter (27%) of respondents say they need more education and training to get the kind of job or career they would like to have.

Of those, 35% would most likely pursue additional education/training at a community college, while 24% would prefer a technical school, and 22% named a four-year public college or university as their choice.

  • 42% say they either plan to or may return to school, 19% and 23%, respectively. Of those, 93% say they have convenient access to high-speed, broadband internet, and 90% say they are comfortable enough with technology to take college-level courses entirely online.
  • 27% of all respondents say they have had to buy new technology equipment for work or to go to school online during the pandemic. Of those, 47% say the purchase(s) created a financial hardship for them.

The study, conducted by the Dallas-based market research firm Dynata, surveyed 500 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 4.4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.


The survey conducted Feb. 19–28, 2021, used a blended methodology: 245 randomly selected respondents were interviewed by telephone (155 cell, 90 landline), and 255 responses were completed through an online sample screened for demographics. Respondents were adult Tennesseans who are registered voters and employed full time (at least 30 hours per week). The three geographic divisions of the state were represented proportionately in the sample. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 4.38 percent at a 95 percent confidence level.

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