Interview with Emily House

Emily House

by Kyle Huisman 

Emily House has played an important role at the Tennessee Promise from the beginning. She led the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) and Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation’s research and planning team during the initial rollouts of the Tennessee Promise and Reconnect programs. She then became the deputy executive director of THEC and is now the executive director.

Tell us about something interesting you are working on right now at THEC.  

Like most states, our college-going rate since COVID has gone down. In our case it dropped from 61 percent to about 52 percent. We are using some county-level interventions to keep the FAFSA filing rate high and get the college-going rate back up. Advise Tennessee is a program modeled on the college-advising core. We have 30 advisors who work with one, two, or three high schools apiece. We have had that program since 2016, but we are trying to double down on localized efforts that focus on interventions at the county or school level. This program has taken on a new importance in the context of COVID recovery because it gives students access to one-on-one or small group interactions with these college advisors.  

What can researchers do to better communicate findings to policymakers, and do you have any insights from your transition from a research role to an administrative position?  

First and foremost, you need to make whatever data or research you are presenting accessible to your audience. The people in the legislature with whom I work are intelligent, but they are not PhD trained researchers. You have to meet your audience where they are and give them what they need to have the information to make a decision.  

When you interact with policymakers, you are the expert in the content, but they hold the purse strings and political power. You can’t march in there with your binder full of data and be like, “I know all of this, and you don’t,” because that is not going to get you anywhere. You need to meet people where they are by presenting research in a way that is accessible and free of jargon. You don’t need to be talking about statistical significance, for example.  

Also, don’t litigate the way policymakers talk to you about research. As quantitative researchers, we get bent out of shape about people misinterpreting things, like when people confuse correlation for causation. But I don’t think there is a need for that. We don’t need to be the causal language police for normal people. The crux of it is this: meet your audience where they are. It does not make you less of a researcher if you present things in an accessible way using normal language.  

How did you become interested in place-based issues?  

I fell into place-based research to some extent through my work with THEC. I got my master’s at Vanderbilt and served as an intern at THEC while I was in school. I then went to the University of Michigan to do my doctoral work and ended up going back to Tennessee in 2013, when the free college movement was really taking off, and continued working for THEC while I wrote my dissertation. I worked hard to get where I am, but I feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to dive into the work on place-based college programs at the front end through my work with the Tennessee Promise programs. I am grateful to have become a part of the community of practitioners and scholars researching place-based issues. 

To read more, please check out the rest of our latest report: