Randy Boyd is a somewhat unlikely pick as a special advisor to Governor Bill Haslam on issues of higher education. Boyd is the CEO of Radio Systems Corporation, a pet company best known for their brand names Invisible Fence, Pet Safe, and Sport Dog.
“It seemed it was natural to go from animal welfare to higher education,” Boyd joked, “[but] there is one segue between animal welfare and dog products and this current educational initiative.”
A few years ago, Boyd went to the mayor of Knox County with a plan to make Knoxville, Boyd’s hometown, the most pet-friendly city in America. “I asked him to help me with this cause,” Boyd said, “and as every good politician does, he had a quid pro quo.”
The mayor wanted Boyd to run a program to increase the college graduation rate in Knox County. Boyd agreed.
Since its inception, Tennessee Achieves has helped thousands of high school seniors attend community college free of charge. To this day, Boyd pays the salaries of the program’s staff out of his company’s profits. In his new role as an advisor to the governor on issues of higher education, Boyd is charged with tackling a three-pronged problem known as the “iron triangle”: affordability, access, and quality in higher education.
Boyd believes that too often students are choosing a college major without enough information. “Sometimes they start off thinking, ‘You know, I think I’d love to be in a particular field,’” Boyd said, “but two years in they’ve discovered it really wasn’t what they wanted to do. So they’ve managed to make pretty inefficient use of a couple of years, and it costs them more money.”
To some extent this is Boyd’s own story. When he attended a freshman orientation at the University of Tennessee, “I knew I wanted to be in business,” Boyd said. “Somebody listed all the different majors and they had one of them that was Industrial Management. I thought, ‘Sure, I’d love to manage an industry.’”
Boyd said he was two years into his degree before he realized the major wasn’t as germane to his ambitious as the title implied. “Unfortunately, for many other students they are in the same situation,” Boyd said. “They start and make a decision very impulsively, then realize it’s not what they want to do.”
Boyd believes students should be better apprised of what degrees are in hot demand among the state’s largest employers. He is awaiting the results of a study examining that question, but he says there are some degrees he is certain will make their holders employable, “We definitely are in critical need of things in the STEM field—science, technology, engineering, math,” Body said. “Also today on the skills side—welding … [and] there’s lots of opportunities in the health services.”
Boyd is charged with helping the governor raise the college graduation rate from around 30 percent to 55 percent by 2025. That’s the percentage that both Boyd and Haslam believe will help attract new businesses to the state. (Before they make a decision to relocate, many businesses examine how educated the workforce is.) Boyd got his new position because of his work with high school seniors, but he has spent much of his first days on the job brainstorming programs and incentives for adults. “When we look at how we get to 55 percent,” Boyd said, “a big part of that is going to come from adult learners.”