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.”

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.