Mike Christen  |  The Daily Herald

President Joe Biden has shared praise for Lawrence County’s newly-opened Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center.

Located in Lawrenceburg, the campus is shared by three local post-secondary institutions offering programs to both traditional and non-traditional students.

Columbia State Community College, Tennessee Tech University and Martin Methodist College all have a stake in the more than $20 million project that establishes a formal campus in the community located in Southern Middle Tennessee.

“The opening of this center is the culmination of years of planning, vision, and collaboration on behalf of students who are most in need,” Biden said in a press release sent by Chris Jackson, Chairman Pro-Tempore of Lawrence County Commission.

“You should take pride in knowing that your efforts will provide unprecedented opportunities for them and, in turn, our Nation as a whole. Your longstanding commitment to Tennessee's students — especially those in rural and underserved areas— is an inspiration to us all.”

The campus, which was formally unveiled last week, marks the first opportunity for Lawrence County students to pursue a four-year degree in their home community.

More:Southern hub for education: Southern Middle Tennessee Education Center opens Lawrence County

In a first step, businesses and citizens of Lawrence County gathered funds for what would become a satellite campus of Columbia State Community College established in 1988.

Starting in 2014, Lawrence County began paving a path for students to earn a four-year, Bachelor’s degree locally.

A partnership was then formed with Tennessee Technological University and plans were drawn up to create a new campus. Another innovation for rural Tennessee, Lawrence County began constructing the Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center—the first community-owned, collaborative college campus in Tennessee.

'Empowering the next generation'

More than two decades later, the community began paving the way to establish a local opportunity for students to earn a four-year, bachelor’s degree and  a partnership was formed with Tennessee Technological University as plans were drafted to create a new campus.

By 2017, construction began on the Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center which now stands completes as the  the first community-owned, collaborative college campus in the state.

“As the proud husband of an educator, I have seen firsthand the hard work and dedication of those who commit their lives to empowering the next generation, and I am so grateful for your determination and your advocacy,” Biden said.  “In fulfilling the mission of this new center, you will bring us closer to the more just and equitable Nation we know we can be.”

The new campuses embraces the the state’s efforts to expand opportunities to prospective students under the pressure of expectations that indicate at least half the jobs in our state will require some post-secondary education by 2025.

In response, the Drive to 55 is a state effort Drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.

The state now offers the Tennessee Promise providing high school graduates with two years of community or technical college tuition-free.

Additionally, Tennessee Reconnect offers all Tennessee adults who do not already have an associate or bachelor degree the opportunity to attend community college or technical college tuition-free.

“The global economy has changed dramatically in the 21st century, providing exciting new possibilities for the American people,” Biden said. “However, many of these opportunities will require some education beyond a high school diploma, including at least half of all jobs in Tennessee alone. That is why education centers like this will give hard-working Americans the chance to join or maintain their place in the middle class. The Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center and the continued efforts of students, educators, and advocates across America will help provide opportunities for Americans to learn, grow, and succeed in the 21st century economy.”

Local leaders respond

A press release from Biden’s office explained that Lawrence County Commission Chairman Pro-Tempore Chris Jackson briefed representatives of the Biden Administration on the opening of the new campus, prompting the President to share a message praising the new campus.

"For the President of the United States to officially recognize our community's achievement in the Southern Tennessee Higher Education Center speaks volumes about our people," Jackson said. "President Lyndon Johnson attended the dedication ceremony for Columbia State's Columbia campus in 1967. And now President Biden has sent official congratulations to our citizens on this momentous achievement. It is a great honor and we thank him for his kind words."

"This success of this project, and the fact that the President of the United States took time to recognize it, just goes to show that when this community works together, we can achieve anything.”