Celebrating Credentials, One Signing Day at a Time

by Matthew Roberts, Division of College, Career, and Technical Education

Tialea was nervous. She was about to be in front of a room full of people making a large, public statement. She wasn’t delivering a speech, however. Instead, she was making a commitment – a commitment to her future, to earning a postsecondary credential, and to pursuing an in-demand career in information technology. Tialea was one of thousands who participated in National Career and Technical Education Letter of Intent Signing Day on Feb. 15. In our state, Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology, or TCATs, hosted signing ceremonies, similar to college signing events for NCAA athletes. Although not committing to play a sport, the intent to complete a postsecondary program, at a TCAT or any other institution, should not be taken lightly. It’s time we celebrate all students committing to earn a postsecondary credential.

The celebration was simple, yet effective. Brandon Hudson, coordinator of special programs at TCAT-Nashville, called students by program of study to the front of the room. With their families standing behind them or cheering them on in the audience, students signed a letter of intent, committing to earn a postsecondary credential at a TCAT. After signing, students put on a TCAT baseball hat as the crowd applauded them on for making this commitment. This letter of intent is about more than ensuring each student has a career. Brandon Hudson explains these commitments create a brighter future for our community. He notes, “TCATs keep our communities alive and growing.” And with TCATs across the state helping students earn credentials in high-growth fields like health science, advanced manufacturing, and information technology, he’s right. TCATs are a vital part of preparing our state’s next workforce and meeting the goals of Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55, boasting a completion rate of 83% and a job placement rate of 86% for the 2015-16 academic year.

On an individual level, students like Tialea have the important opportunity to explore careers thanks to high school career and technical education classes and TCATs. Tialea attends Sumner County’s Middle Technical College High School in Portland, where she will earn a Desktop Technician certificate at TCAT-Nashville at Portland along with her high school diploma. Tialea is earning an industry certification while still in high school through dual enrollment classes at her local TCAT. Early postsecondary opportunities, like industry certifications and dual enrollment, allow students like Tialea to be more prepared for high-wage, in-demand careers, but also provide them with an on-ramp to more training. Tialea plans to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in information technology after earning her certificate. Like many students, Tialea credits career and technical education to helping her find a potential career path. Her nerves about the ceremony disappeared when she was given the chance to explain her career path, and a new confidence emerged. She explained, “These classes have definitely helped me figure out what I want to do. I learned that I love studying the inside of computers, so this seemed like the right fit!”

As our state sprints closer to meeting the goals of the Drive to 55, signing days like these provide clear insight into how we can create a postsecondary-going culture in schools across Tennessee. And they remind us that all postsecondary options – including TCATs, community colleges, and four-year colleges – have a distinct value in shaping our state’s future workforce. Given the recent Drive to 55: Pathways to Postsecondary report which states only 63% of Tennessee high school graduates enroll in postsecondary, with only 3% enrolling in a TCAT, all educators must take ownership in creating a postsecondary-going culture. Here are a few quick steps:

  • Encourage students to explore all postsecondary options in their area.
  • Show them the credentials they may need to pursue the career of their choice.
  • Celebrate with them when they make a commitment, whether that’s a hug, hand-shake, or a public ceremony.

These are steps all educators and community members can and should take to encourage students to plan for and enroll in postsecondary. Tialea explains, “I loved going to the front of the room and signing. It made me feel important.” All students deserve to feel like their postsecondary plans have value.

Interested in ways you can create a college-going culture in your school or district? You can find ideas in A Path of Choice, the department’s guide to shaping a school culture. Have a promising practice that promotes a college-going culture? Email Matthew.A.Roberts@tn.gov.