Pathway to college

For Tennessee high school students, free community college isn’t about the money. It’s about the branding.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Josue Flores credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School in Memphis.

Josue Flores credits Tennessee’s free community college program for allowing him to continue his education after graduating from Cordova High School last spring, only three years after immigrating to the United States.

But it wasn’t just the money. The state doesn’t actually pay for Flores’ education because federal grants cover his tuition at Southwest Community College in Memphis.

More important has been the straightforward “promise” of the Tennessee Promise scholarship. The program guarantees that Flores can go to college for two years for free if he follows a simple step-by-step checklist.

High-achieving students across income levels still overwhelmingly opt to attend four-year programs. But state education officials and school counselors say Tennessee Promise has energized the conversation around college for many other students.

“Once they hear ‘free,’ they perk up,” says Ellen Houston, a counselor at Nashville’s Glencliff High School. “There are definitely kids who wouldn’t have continued their education (without it).”

Before Tennessee Promise, free college initiatives existed on a much smaller scale, and were typically privately funded. In Tennessee, the seed was planted by a program called Knox Achieves, started in 2008 when Gov. Bill Haslam was mayor of Knoxville. That attracted more philanthropic funding and morphed into tnAchieves, which served students across the state.

Tennessee Promise launched in 2014 and is still too young for conclusive academic studies. But it’s the first statewide program of its kind and already is viewed as an exemplar as more states, recently including New York, move to increase college access. Research on Michigan’s Kalamazoo Promise, the nation’s oldest free college program, suggests that the promise of free higher education positively changes the culture in high schools.

Unlike the Kalamazoo program, Tennessee Promise only applies to community and technical colleges. It’s a “last dollar” scholarship, meaning that it covers only what federal aid does not, using revenue from the state’s lottery. Of more than 16,000 Tennessee Promise students who graduated last year from high school, 53 percent, including Flores, qualified for Pell grants, which are worth up to $5,082 each year.

There’s no grade cutoff, and the requirements are fairly straightforward. Students must be documented residents of Tennessee. They must meet clear deadlines for attending informational meetings, filling out the federal aid form called the FAFSA, and completing eight hours of community service each year.

The program’s simplicity made it a perfect fit for Flores. When he moved to the United States from El Salvador three years ago, his sole focus was to learn English. Then he started to look at college. But finding a way to pay for it was daunting.

“I started to look for scholarships, and the system was completely different (from El Salvador),” he recalls.

He heard about Tennessee Promise from his classmates. He liked the structure of the scholarship program — and the guarantee of an award if he jumped through all the hoops. “It was a blessing,” he said. “There were definite steps to take so I could definitely get it. This was for sure.”

Because a FAFSA application is required for Tennessee Promise, students who previously might not have known or bothered to complete one are getting it done. That, along with Tennessee’s Hope Scholarship, a last-dollar grant with a GPA requirement, have made Tennessee the No. 1 state in FAFSA completion for two years running.

“Before it was, ‘Hey, fill out this horrible form called the FAFSA. You might get to school for free. Now we can say, if you follow these guidelines, you will get to go for free,” says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

From the beginning, architects of Tennessee Promise knew that messaging would be almost as important as the actual money, according to Krause, who spearheaded the program as part of Haslam’s Drive to 55 college-going initiative.

So far, Krause and other state leaders consider Tennessee Promise a success. The state’s college-going rate among recent high school graduates has jumped 4.6 percentage points since 2014, to 62.5 percent, and retention rates at community colleges have increased, suggesting that students who start college with the program stick with it.

The true test will be if students like Flores are able to get the kinds of good-paying jobs they want.

Flores, for one, is optimistic. He just started his second semester at Southwest and has set his eyes toward obtaining a nursing degree at the University of Memphis. That would get him one step closer to his childhood dream of working in the medical field.

“Nothing is impossible,” he says, “but without (Tennessee Promise) it would have been a lot tougher.”

Test case

New York’s free-college program comes with a big catch: Students who fall off track risk losing their scholarships

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

With thousands of college students about to finish their first semester under New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, advocates, critics and researchers will be looking closely at one crucial question: How did they do?

The new scholarship — which provides free college tuition at state public schools to students whose families make less than $100,000 a year — is the first program in the nation in which a state offers free tuition at four-year colleges. But the program has also been criticized for its many restrictions, including strict credit requirements and an obligation to live and work in the state after graduation.

One early sign of the program’s effectiveness will be whether students can keep up with their classwork. The scholarship banks on the idea that students will not fall behind over the course of a year. The penalty for failing to complete the required credits by year’s end are substantial: Students must pay back a semester’s tuition and forfeit future funds.

Tracking the number of scholarship students who fail to complete courses in this first semester of the program will provide one indication of how many students may struggle to meet the requirements, experts said.

In the next two to three years, once there’s a lot of numerical data, we’re all going to have a much better sense of how this program is faring and what specific issues may arise that need to be ironed out,” said Arthur Ramsay, spokesman for the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents students throughout the State University of New York.

The state intends to expand the income eligibility for the program by 2019 to include families who make $125,000 or less a year.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the scholarship last spring, critics jumped on the requirement that students complete 30 credits a year — the average course load required to graduate on-time — since many students struggle to finish in two or four years. But Cuomo argued that it will encourage more students to graduate faster, and that dragging out college makes it less likely students will ever complete a degree.

Eric Neutuch, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who is studying financial aid, said that he could potentially see the credit requirement having both positive and negative effects. It is possible more students will sign up for extra credits in order to keep their scholarship, but losing a scholarship may throw off students who otherwise would have graduated, he said.

“There is potential that students will lose Excelsior, not regain it, owe money back to their college and throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m done with college,’” Neutuch said. More scrutiny is necessary to figure out what the result will be, he said.

The scholarship’s rules leave some wiggle room, but not a lot. If students fall behind, they can attempt to make up a class the next semester. Students are also allowed to count summer classes, though they are only eligible for the scholarship during the school year. Some students may also be granted hardship waivers for the death of a family member, health problems, or parental leave.

But the credit requirement may be particularly onerous for students not quite ready for college-level work. They must take a full course-load in addition to any remedial classes, which may be required for students in associate’s degree programs. Only 46 percent of New York City students meet the benchmark to avoid remedial classes at the City University of New York.

If history is any indication, college students from New York City will struggle with this set of rules. According to a CUNY report, only about 32 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees completed 30 credits in 2014. (CUNY is now using a separate metric focused on freshman to track credit accumulation.) In associate degree programs, less than 10 percent of entering freshman in 2015 finished 30 credits in their first year.

State officials argue part of the scholarship’s goal is to improve that metric.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson from the governor’s office. “Most importantly, in its first year alone, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition-costs—something to be celebrated.”

But for many students, taking 30 credits each year is simply not possible, said Stephanie Fiorelli, the postsecondary success manager at Urban Assembly, which supports 21 small public schools in New York City. She said many students who graduated from Urban Assembly schools are working between 15 and 20 hours a week on top of attending school. They have family obligations, run into problems paying for transportation, and struggle with a myriad of obstacles out of their control.

“These kids want to be in school full-time.” she said. “It’s not feasible at all.”

Other complications could play into students’ ability to reach the 30-credit requirement. Natan Nassir, a sophomore at Binghamton University, started his year with the state’s Excelsior scholarship, but ran into trouble when he decided to switch majors.

For his new major, he was encouraged, but not technically required, to take a computer science course. However, since he does not need that class in order to graduate, it does not count towards his 30 required credits, he said. (State officials said that all credits must count towards a student graduating and getting a degree.)

He will be one class shy of what he needs (even though he is taking a full course load) and he plans to attend summer school to make up the extra class.

“I was very surprised, honestly, when she told me about this requirement,” Nassir said, “I had no idea that it existed. I kind of thought, ‘Well now what?’”

devos watch

DeVos calls America still ‘a nation at risk,’ cheers GOP tax plan

PHOTO: ExcelinEd
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks Thursday to the National Summit on Education Reform meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. About 1,100 education leaders from 40 states attended the two-day summit.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearkened back Thursday to the landmark Reagan-era report indicting America’s public schools and declared that not much has changed. Today’s education system is still putting the nation at risk, she charged.

Speaking in Nashville at the National Summit on Education Reform, she rallied education leaders to expand “school choice,” took swipes at teachers unions and Democrats, and spoke up for her boss’s campaign to overhaul the nation’s tax structure.

DeVos’s 20-minute address drew a standing ovation from most of the 1,100 people attending the 10th annual summit hosted by her friend Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education, of which DeVos once served on the board.

She used the occasion to encourage influencers — from lawmakers to faith leaders — to fight for options that give choices to parents, flexibility to teachers, and personalized attention to students.

And borrowing a quote from Mark Twain, she assured the friendly audience that she will lead the charge from her perch at the U.S. Department of Education.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated!” said DeVos, the subject of a viral report in Salon that she was expected to resign soon. “I’m not going anywhere! In fact, I’m just getting started!”

As the nub of her speech, DeVos referred to “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report released under then-Secretary of Education Terrell Bell that, in many ways, was the impetus for the modern education reform movement. The report decried “a rising tide of mediocrity” in public education and said America’s schools were failing to prepare students for a competitive workforce.

“We are a nation still at risk. We are a nation at greater risk,” said DeVos, citing the middle-of-the-pack performance of U.S. students in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. When it comes to student achievement, America is being outpaced by nations like China, Germany, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, she said.

“This is unacceptable. This is inexcusable. And this is truly un-American. We can — we must — do better,” DeVos said.

With the Republican tax plan hurtling toward a vote in Congress, DeVos praised it as the right change at the right time, despite concerns that the current proposals could constrain the ability of state and local governments to levy their own taxes, which could affect spending on schools.

“Our nation’s broken tax system is well overdue for comprehensive reform,” said the Michigan billionaire. “And I am so encouraged that, with the president’s leadership, leaders in Congress are poised to finally do something about it.”

DeVos lauded learning experiences tailored to the needs of students in settings that are chosen by parents. She gave examples of students who succeeded at charter and virtual schools and students who used tax-credit scholarship programs to attend private schools with public money. She gave a shout-out to Illinois for passing a private school tuition scholarship tax credit and to New Hampshire for efforts to pass similar legislation.

“Millions of kids today, right now, are trapped in schools that are failing them,” she said. “Millions more are stuck in schools that are not meeting their individual needs. And their parents have no options, no choices, no way out.”

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
DeVos visits with students in mechatronics classes at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

This was DeVos’s first visit to Tennessee as education chief, and she preceded her summit appearance by touring a career and technical education program on Wednesday at Oakland High School, a traditional public school in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville. On Thursday, she heralded students in those tracks as “fully engaged” in learning that eventually will help them land jobs in healthcare, engineering or automotive technology.

“I think we’ve really done a disservice to young people to suggest that the only path to success is a four-year college or university,” she told Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam during a Q&A following her address. “We need to change our language and encourage young people to find the areas that most interest them.”