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 is a freshman at Southwest Community College. He credits the straightforward path of Tennessee Promise for helping him continue his education after graduating in 2016 from Cordova High School.

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.”

College Access

Tennessee lawmakers advance bill to give undocumented immigrants in-state tuition

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students visit the Tennessee State Capitol with local immigrant advocacy groups in support of a measure that would ensure all Tennessee students get in-state tuition.

While President Donald Trump is considering scrapping protections for undocumented students, Tennessee lawmakers advanced a bill on Wednesday that would make it easier for them to go to college.

A proposal to give undocumented immigrant students in-state tuition passed the Senate Education Committee with a 7-2 vote and little debate.

The move was fairly unusual, given Tennessee lawmakers’ typical hardline stance on undocumented immigrants — the state outlawed “sanctuary cities” in 2009 — and the president’s focus on the issue. But the bill’s Republican sponsor, Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, has steered clear of national politics and focused instead on how the proposal would continue the state’s push to get more of its young people into college.

“We know that if more Tennesseans have a college degree, the whole state is better off,” he said. “By allowing more Tennesseans to enroll in college, we can fill crucial labor shortages and expand the overall tax base.”

Sixteen states, and four other state university systems, offered in-state tuition to undocumented students in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Six states explicitly bar those students from receiving it.

Advocates say the policy can make a big difference for families. Out-of-state tuition to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville is $30,914, compared to $12,274 in-state. And for community colleges, the difference is even greater: out-of-state tuition at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis costs more than $15,000, while other Tennessee high school graduates can attend for free through Tennessee Promise.

Undocumented students can’t access federal Pell grants to pay for college, nor do they qualify for the state’s free community college program, which relies on federal grants.

Making sure students who have lived in Tennessee most of their lives can graduate from college means a better return on taxpayers’ investment, Gardenhire said.

“We invest in these students throughout their K-12 education,” he said. “But then they get to college, and they have to pay three times the in-state rate.”

The bill still has several hurdles to overcome before becoming law, since it hasn’t been heard yet in the House and Tennessee’s legislative session is nearing its end. But its sponsor in the House, Rep. Mark White, a Republican from Memphis, said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances there as well. Gov. Bill Haslam has said in the past that allowing all Tennessee students in-state tuition “has merit.”

On Wednesday, dozens of immigrant students attended the hearing to watch the vote. Many remembered a similar bill that died in the House two years ago, just one vote short.

Many were heartened by the vote, according to Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director of Tennessee Immigrants and Refugee Rights Coalition.

“We are optimistic that subsequent committees will vote to support Tuition Opportunity and that undocumented students in the class of 2017 will be able to graduate with greater opportunity to enroll in college this fall,” she said in a statement.

down to the wire

As New York’s free college tuition debate heats up, experts weigh in on whether a flawed tuition bill is worth passing

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

With the state budget deadline approaching, it’s not yet clear whether New York state will make a historic investment in tuition-free college — but it is almost certain that not everybody will get what they want.

With the three key plans — from the governor, Assembly and Senate — on the table, lawmakers now have to decide which aspects of the proposal makes it into the final deal. The governor’s original Excelsior Scholarship proposal offered free tuition at state colleges for families earning less than $125,000 per year. The Assembly wants more help for low-income students and more flexible requirements, and the Senate wants private colleges to also receive a boost.

In the midst of this heated discussion, panelists at an event hosted by the Center for New York City Affairs tackled the question: Is a “bad” bill better than no bill?

Here are their answers:

Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Answer: Yes.

What’s a bad bill here? Everything that you’re discussing can be made more perfect. But please know that you’re talking about the future not only of New Yorkers here, but of people across the country. This is a nascent idea. It’s a difficult idea and it is gathering steam and for New York to step into the fray, even with an imperfect proposal, is very important, and it would be a major step backward to take if off the table. There are lots of states and lots of students around the country watching New York, and I think that the chance for New York and Albany to make history here is really very present.

This conversation and this dynamic is going to continue to play out across the country and it’s absolutely imperative that this moves forward. We should make it as good as it can be and then we should make it better over time.

Kimberly Cline, president, Long Island University

Answer: It really should include private colleges.

We would like to see a bill … that tied more into TAP [the state’s Tuition Assistance Program] because we feel that TAP has not been moved up in a long time, so students have not had the benefit of that. And that could benefit both public and independent colleges and the economy of New York state.

Mike Fabricant, first vice president, Professional Staff Congress, CUNY

Answer: It’s got to stay free. It’s got to stay public. It’s got to help CUNY.

To make is more perfect, I would stay with two things the governor’s done: One, conceptually to speak about free tuition is an incredibly important moment and a critically important point. For him to speak about undocumented students and others to be included is extraordinarily important and we have to hold him accountable on that … And finally, not including privates … is incredibly important as we move in the other direction to invest in public universities.

That said, we also need to be dealing with the other side of the equation, which is in fact the capacity …. My feeling is we spend so much time on the affordability side and we lack parts of capacity to pay for affordability.

Assemblymember James Skoufis, who represents Orange and Rockland Counties. (Skoufis drafted a letter, signed by 30 Assembly members, that called for a tuition plan with softer credit requirements, a raised income threshold and a boost for low-income students.)

Answer: We should fight for more, but in the end, we should do something.

There are some purists in the legislature and I’m not one who believes we should let the perfect get in the way of the good. I’ve been critical of the governor’s proposal in that it only helps 32,000 additional students. That’s the projected number of students who will benefit from his Excelsior Scholarship. I think it should be many, many, many more than that, but look, who am I to say if I’m one of those 32,000 students that gets help that it’s not a big deal to them?

What we have to be wary [of] is that, if the governor’s proposal moves forward or some similar version to it, that we all just don’t celebrate and say “OK, we’ve accomplished free tuition in New York” and now it’s off the table and we don’t try to make it better. That’s the one fear that I do have, that if we do get some watered-down version of free tution that people are going to sort of rest on their laurels on this issue and it’s going to be considered done. So that is one thing I’m wary of, but yeah, we’ve got to do something here. Strike while the iron’s hot.

Kevin Stump, Northeast director of Young Invincibles

Answer: We have to be really, really careful

This is a national moment, this coming from New York right now. This coming from a [possible] presidential nominee for 2020. This is a big deal that will have consequences here on out, which is why it matters to get it right. Because we’re not going to have another moment like this in New York. This is going to set the tone for states across the country, which is why advocates who have been doing this in New York for years are concerned that we’re just going to do this, wash our hands, and walk away. Leave the universities with even greater budget holes and continue to do nothing for the most [needy] students who already have their tuition paid for and already can’t afford to pay for the non-tuition related costs, which make up the majority of getting a college degree. So we need to continue to push and have a conversation about what investment means — and it’s certainly more than $163 million.