Tennessee Technology Centers get some love
Degrees of Speed
What the unemployed really need are public institutions that combine the best qualities of both types of schools: the low cost and public mission of community colleges, and the quicker-to-graduation curricula and job-placement focus of the best proprietary schools. A handful of education systems around the country—in Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, and Washington State, for example—have attempted to build such programs. The most successful may be in Tennessee.
Whereas community colleges in most states offer both one-year certificate and two-year degree programs, Tennessee split these functions into different institutions when creating its community college system back in the 1960s. As a result, the state operates thirteen academically oriented community colleges as well as a separate system of twenty-seven Technology Centers. These Tech Centers specialize in one-year certifications in high-demand fields like accounting, diesel-powered equipment, computer networking, drafting and CAD technology, industrial electricity, licensed practical nursing, and dental assisting. Students pay about the same tuition—around $2,400 per year—as do Tennessee’s community college students (tuition covers about 30 percent of the cost of the training at the Tech Centers; the state picks up the rest). But in terms of how they structure and deliver an education, the Tech Centers more closely resemble for-profit trade schools. Academic lessons are woven into the instruction rather than taught in separate courses. Classes are scheduled in blocks and at convenient hours, and students move through them as a group, increasing the chances that they will learn from each other (a phenomenon known to education experts as the "cohort effect"). The Tech Centers also offer rotations and apprenticeships for their students with employers in the state, and a data system that tracks where and when students land their first jobs and at what starting salary level—information that helps the school fine-tune its courses to make sure the skills they are teaching are the ones the market actually needs.
The results are impressive. About 75 percent of students who enroll at Tech Centers graduate, and 83 percent of those graduates get jobs in their fields of study and are still in those jobs a year later. Tech Centers, in other words, outperform most for-profit schools, and do so at a fraction of the cost.