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.”

And the winner is

Tennessee wins $2 million grant to boost career education

Tennessee has won a $2 million grant to strengthen career preparation for middle and high school students, state leaders announced Wednesday.

The grant is through the New Skills for Youth program, which is supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Nine other states also received funding for a total of $20 million in awards.

The funding will be distributed over three years with the goal of expanding career-focused education from middle school to beyond high school graduation.

Career preparation is a major focus in Tennessee. In 2013, Gov. Bill Haslam launched a Drive to 55 initiative with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

And in the State Department of Education’s draft plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, officials propose holding schools accountable for the number of career opportunities, like apprenticeships, that are available to students.

“Our work in K-12 education is to prepare students for success beyond our classrooms, and Tennessee is fully committed to strengthening postsecondary and workforce readiness for all students,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release. “Funding from this grant will allow us to expand opportunities for students to access early postsecondary opportunities that can equip them for jobs and open doors for them as they graduate from high school, particularly in rural or economically distressed areas and in expanding industries.”

Part of the reason Tennessee’s grant application stood out was its focus on equity, said Chris Minnich, the council’s executive director. “One of the big things that we were looking for is that every child would have access (to these programs),” he said.

Minnich hopes the grant will elevate the prestige of career education. Historically, vocational and career education has been used to track students into separate groups, often based on race or socioeconomic status.

“Career technical education cannot be something left to a certain group of kids who are not going to college,” he said. “These grants are a step in that direction.”

Other states receiving grants are Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

College path

Cuomo’s college tuition plan would be a boon for many students, but does it go far enough?

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo proposes making college tuition-free for New York’s middle-class families.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an ambitious plan to provide free tuition at state colleges, it was hailed as a milestone. If passed by the legislature, it would relieve thousands of families of a huge burden by offering free two- and four-year tuition to those earning less than $125,000 per year.

But in the days since it was announced, observers have taken a closer look at the plan’s fine print, and some say that despite its sweeping scope, it doesn’t do enough for many needy students.

The governor’s office has released few details about the plan, but so far it is clear that part-time students would not qualify, even though they comprise roughly a third of the student body at CUNY and SUNY colleges. Neither would undocumented students, since they are currently ineligible for state financial aid. And the plan, as proposed, would “cover the remaining tuition costs” for students already receiving federal and state grants, but does not mention providing funds for additional expenses such as room and board.

“I think we just have to be clear about who’s going to benefit and how much they’re going to benefit,” said Raymond Domanico, director of education research at the city’s Independent Budget Office. “It’s not low-income. It’s the less poor and the working class.”

Some of the plan’s supporters have wondered why the price tag for the governor’s plan seemed relatively low — an estimated $163 million per year. In part, that’s because part-time students are excluded, significantly limiting the population Cuomo’s plan serves. CUNY had more than 80,000 undergraduate students attending its colleges part-time in the fall of 2015.

Cuomo’s office said the decision to exclude part-time students was meant to encourage students to go to school full-time, since full-time students are more likely to graduate. Less than 40 percent of students attending four-year public universities and roughly 8.5 percent of those attending two-year colleges in New York graduated on time in 2013, according to a state press release.

Research shows the educational plans of part-time students are more easily derailed, and being fully invested in campus activities, such as clubs and support groups, help students stay in school, said Ann Marcus, a professor of higher education at the Steinhardt Institute at NYU.

Yet, part-time students often need to hold jobs either to support themselves or their families, Marcus said. “Most people who are part-time students, they are all people who feel like they either can’t or don’t want to give up their job.”

Cuomo’s current cost estimates also do not include funding for undocumented students, a spokesperson from the governor’s office confirmed. SUNY does not keep track of how many undocumented students are enrolled statewide, a spokesperson said. But there are approximately 3,800 full-time undocumented students attending CUNY schools.

State Democrats and Republicans have clashed for years over state’s DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented New York state students to receive state aid. Though undocumented students are not included in the current proposal, Cuomo pledged to keep pushing for the DREAM Act this year.

“We support the DREAM Act and will work to ensure both proposals are passed,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Meanwhile, critics say, there’s another population the program does little to serve: the state’s neediest students. While their tuition may already be entirely covered by federal Pell grants and state aid, Cuomo’s proposal does nothing to help them with additional expenses, such as rent and food, argued Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

Ruth Genn, executive director of the New York office of Bottom Line, which helps low-income students navigate the college process, knows that firsthand. Though her organization is excited about Cuomo’s proposal, she says it’s not a panacea.

“[Tuition] doesn’t cover all the other things that our students are facing,” she said. Students are “taking out loans to cover those expenses.”