By Reginald Stuart

Tennessee State University’s dramatic move to boost high school students financial ability to attend college by awarding four-year, tuition paid scholarships starting in fall of 2023, received a surprise endorsement this month from Rita Sanders Geier, (the sister of Rev. Edwins C. Sanders, II )the Memphis native and Fisk University graduate who spent nearly 40 years in federal courts trying the get the state to dismantle its “dual system” higher education.

“It’s important to provide opportunities for students who have financial need to have this steppingstone,” Geier said in an interview near her home in Maryland. “It’s important to have this opportunity,” said Geier, a graduate of Melrose High School in Memphis. Her mother, a schoolteacher, and father, a minister, were strong advocates of education.

Geier taught part-time at Tennessee State in 1967 and ’68 as she began law school at Vanderbilt. She started her legal effort to end racial segregation in state-controlled higher education with the assistance of progressive attorney George Barrett, a Father Ryan High and Vanderbilt Law School alumnus. 

Barrett worked closely in 1960 with the late Z. Alexander Looby and Avon William Jr. to end race discrimination in retail stores and eateries downtown. Barrett died in August 2014 after a brief illness of pancreatic cancer.

Geier, recalling the long college segregation battle, said she never gave up the court fight with state leaders which, in its 38-year process, included 10 state attorneys general, seven governors and a host of commissioners of higher education. 

At key junctions it also included state investments into upgrading the buildings and grounds of Tennessee State, closing the University of Tennessee Downtown Nashville Center and establishing the Avon Williams Jr. downtown branch of TSU. 

Tennessee’s higher education system went through a complete overhaul in 2016, when then Gov. Bill Haslam pushed through legislation giving each of the six state-controlled four-year colleges, their own boards of governors. Their role was to collegially set the institution’s rules, guidelines, protect the taxpayer’s investments in the institutions and set its tuition and other costs and expenses.      

Geier, who began work after law school with Legal Services of Nashville, the non-profit free legal service for the poor, and ended her law practice as head of the appeals staff of the federal Social Security administration with 6,000 staffers in 140 offices nationwide. 

Upon retirement, attorney Geier served with the late U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. on his staff of the Howard Baker Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

“My family always valued college,” Geier said, adding she hopes Tennessee State gets a proliferation of applicants for the new scholarships. “It’s a substantial amount,” she said, speculating just one year’s amount (roughly $9,000) adds to more than her folks would have had to pay for her entire four years.     

As reported earlier, TSU said it is hammering out details of the new offer and the scholarships information should be available later this year, in time for applicants applying for fall of 2023.  

The Nashville Public High Schools reported an 81.8 percent graduation rate for the 2021 school year, according to its latest official enrollment report. The state’s overall average rate was 88.7 percent.

The school system also reported 62 percent if its 2021 graduates were considered coming from economically disadvantaged households based on the Bridge to Completion Report of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. The school board does not collect family income information. 

While the college bound high school population declined due to the covid-19 pandemic, dropping to 44 percent in 2021, school officials say they are more optimistic, now that people are grasping the serious impact of the deadly covid-19 virus. The school system has had “nothing but positive feedback on this initiative,” said public schools system spokesman Sean Braisted.