I recently cited an article written by marketing expert Ashley Yazbec smartly pointed to research showing that while 72 percent of educational institutions believe recent graduates are ready for work only 42 percent of employers believe the same.

How do we bridge this gap between college and gainful employment?

In recent years, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has radically reorganized higher education in my state, realigning our post-secondary education system in an effort to have 55 percent of residents with a post-secondary degree or credential by 2025. It’s a clear and focused assault on the skills gap. From establishing independent governing boards for several universities like the one I work for (allowing greater flexibility of mission to support local economies) to expanding the accessibility to Tennessee’s community college system (a purer form of technical training for workforce development), the plan is already making a marked improvement across Tennessee. In fact, other states nationwide are now copying the plan.

Mr. Haslam’s “Drive to 55” is led by Mike Krause, the governor-appointed head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, or THEC. In a recent op-ed, Mr. Krause stressed that the Volunteer State’s ongoing push to reconnect adult learners and disproportionately underrepresented minorities to colleges and universities is crucial to attaining that “Drive for 55” goal. He added that the state is doing all it can do to ensure such students get the help they need to graduate with a college degree or workforce certificate.

A former military man with combat experience and the key architect of Mr. Haslam’s higher ed overhaul, Mr. Krause is not your stereotypical, straightjacketed bureaucrat. His Twitter is a must-read for education types in the state of Tennessee, as it is alternately informative and downright funny. Education leaders across the state have praised his work in higher ed as he travels the state, working with students and businesses in every corner and deliberately engaging Tennessee’s network of community and technical colleges.

Tracking results from three years before the Tennessee plan began and four years after, research has found substantial evidence that Tennessee’s approach is helping students amass more credits and complete more degrees and certificates (read: close the skills gap and adequately fill the workforce needs of the state’s business community).

Among other findings:

  • Full-time university students who enrolled in 2010, after the new plan was in place, were 10.2 percent more likely to finish within four years;
  • Among public university students admitted in 2013, hundreds more students had enough credits to begin their junior years on time;
  • Positive effects also were found among full time community college students. Those who enrolled in fall 2011 were 13 percent more likely to attain an associate degree within three years.
  • Additionally, the research showed that annual growth in low-income (Pell) student enrollment grew at a rate of about 15 percent, meaning greater educational opportunity for tens of thousands more low-income Tennesseans.

Despite such successes, Mr. Krause isn’t sitting still. He knows that minority students, students from low-income families, first-generation students, and adults returning to school all still face substantial hurdles. Nationally, while nearly 46 percent of whites have college degrees, census figures show that only 21 percent to 29 percent of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans have degrees. In Tennessee, the most recent figures for people with an associate degree or higher ranged from an estimated 17 percent of Hispanics and nearly 27 percent of African-Americans to roughly 37 percent of whites.

“Fixing those disparities goes beyond just being fair – it’s an economic imperative,” Mr. Krause co-wrote in a recent op-ed. “When at-risk students leave school in debt and without degrees, as nearly 50 percent do, they represent a lost national opportunity greater than just their individual hardships. As a country, we have a major shortage of talent. We must do better.”

A recent Lumina Foundation-sponsored report explored the role of partnerships between industry and higher education to prepare students and employees for the modern workforce. This research showed that, although the desire for collaboration with higher education is almost universal, there is a lack of coherence in how companies approach such partnerships, the kinds of institutions they seek to partner with and the benefits they expect to derive from such collaborations.