(T-G Photos by John I. Carney) [Order this photo]
One thing that almost wasn't discussed: Middle Tennessee Education Center, the joint venture between Motlow and Middle Tennessee State University located in Bedford County Business Complex on Dover Street in Shelbyville.
None of the scheduled speakers mentioned MTEC at all, and it wasn't until the very end of a question-and-answer period that concluded the breakfast that Shelbyville City Manager Jay Johnson asked Motlow president Dr. MaryLou Apple a question about MTEC's future.
"I think our challenge is, how do we get more students to that and keep them engaged?" responded Apple, noting that MTEC is only 25 minutes away from Motlow and only 45 minutes away from MTSU. "I think the students will determine where it goes."
Fewer legislators than normal attended the annual event, and neither of Bedford County's legislators -- State Sen. Jim Tracy and State Rep. Pat Marsh -- was in attendance. Various educators, local elected officials, and economic and community development officials attended the event.
Nichols said this ensures that, in an era of economic uncertainty, students can start their education at a less expensive, closer-to-home facility while still ending up with the same four-year degree as students who went straight to a university.
David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration and facilities management at TBR, said that in the past, professors would take some pride in telling freshmen to look to their left and to their right, warning them that at least one of the three students wouldn't be there to receive a diploma in four years. Now, however, Gregory said colleges are working harder to make sure that students do progress
"Our institutions are trying to make people successful," said Gregory. Part of that relates to new state funding formulas. Colleges and universities no longer get state funding based on how many freshmen start the year in September; instead, their funding is based on their success at moving those students toward graduation.
Apple noted that this funding formula can be problematic for community colleges, because they're often the facilities that have to deal with "high-risk" students who are right on the edge of being able to go to college.
"Our biggest loss? Low income. Highest risk? Low income," said Apple.
Apple noted cases where students have tried to drop out two weeks shy of completing courses just because they didn't have enough gasoline money to make it to the Motlow campus. The Motlow Foundation helps provide scholarship funds, she noted.
Mathematics, said Gregory, is of particular importance, not so much because every profession must use college-level math but because of the critical thinking skills it develops. Gregory said universities are beginning to see a turnaround, with more success in math and other difficult subjects.
In the past, said Gregory, a student who entered community college with lower-than-expected skills was shunted into remedial classes which earned no college credit, a frustrating and demoralizing delay for students which sometimes caused them to drop out. Now, new programs try to help students gain confidence, and earn credits, sooner.
Dual enrollment programs, which allow some high school students to earn college credit, are important, said Gregory, because they help boost students' confidence and will to succeed.
But while progress is being made, there's still some distance to go.
Gregory praised the work being done by Tennessee Technology Centers like the one in Shelbyville. He said the cohort system -- which takes a group of students through the educational process together -- has worked well at TTCs, and it helps students encourage and assist one another.
"You're not going in alone," said Gregory.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, one of only three legislators in attendance, said that health care is "gobbling up" the increased revenue seen by the state in the past year, a problem for those who'd like to spend more of it on education.
Ketron said vocational testing, similar to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), needs to be done at a much earlier age, as it is in Europe. Currently, the ASVAB is given to juniors; Ketron would like to see eighth graders given vocational tests, which would be used to plan their high school education.
Apple said Motlow is working to help encourage students to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers as early as fifth grade.
Ketron said that the University of Tennessee system, which is not part of TBR, should work with TBR to use parts of the underused University of Tennessee Space Institute facility near Tullahoma into a business incubator, to monetize research and inventions by academics.
State Rep. Janice Bowling, whom some Bedford County residents may remember from her days as a staffer for then-U.S. Rep. Van Hilleary, praised the community college system for allowing students to obtain an associate's degree without debt.
"That is our future," she said, "...staying out of debt."
The third legislator in attendance was newly-elected State Rep. Dawn White of Rutherford County. She praised Motlow for its Smyrna satellite location.
Shelbyville Mayor Wallace Cartwright and Ivan Jones of Tennessee Technology Center at Shelbyville were among those attending the breakfast.