Average Wage For TN High School Grads Drops $4,000 In Five Years; Governor Sees Moral Responsibility To Intervene

Governor Bill Haslam fleshed out his "Drive to 55" initiative Wednesday after introducing the idea in this year's State of the State speech. It includes new options for adults to finish degrees online, extra remedial help in math for students entering college and new scholarships for community colleges. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Governor Bill Haslam fleshed out his “Drive to 55″ initiative Wednesday after introducing the idea in this year’s State of the State speech. It includes new options for adults to finish degrees online, extra remedial help in math for students entering college and new scholarships for community colleges. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

The average wage of a high school graduate in Tennessee is falling, as those with degrees make more money each year. Governor Bill Haslam is using this point to call for a drastic increase in Tennessee’s college completion rate.

High school grads with full-time jobs saw average pay slip from roughly $39,000 in 2006 to $35,000 in 2011, according to research by Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. During that same time, those with just a minimum amount of further education received raises, creating a growing gap between education levels.

“At the end of the day, this really becomes like everything else that’s really important – a moral challenge,” Haslam said Wednesday to a crowd of lawmakers, education officials and business leaders in Nashville. “It becomes important for us to say we won’t accept having a percentage of our population that gets left behind.”

Even counting two year degrees and technical certificates, fewer than a third of working age adults in Tennessee have a credential. That puts the state 20 percent below the national average, bringing up the rear with mostly Southern states.

The Georgetown study suggests 55 percent of jobs in Tennessee will require a certificate or degree by 2025. So Haslam has adopted that as a goal, dubbing the initiative a “Drive to 55.”

To get there will require an effort described by state officials as a “moon launch” – eight percent growth per year, to create an additional 500,000 degrees.

Haslam says it will take cultural change as well as more government funding of higher education.

“Obviously, if we’re going to have that many more students come, I think it will mean more dollars from the state,” he told reporters.

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