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Obama's vision for 'free' community college: Lessons from Tennessee

President Obama on Wednesday talked about making community colleges free. Tennessee has the first statewide program in the US to offer tuition-free community or technical college for every high school graduate who meets the criteria.

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    President Barack Obama speaks at Macomb County Community College Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, in Warren, Mich. Obama announces new steps to expand apprenticeships and a push to make community college free for responsible students.
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President Obama visited Macomb Community College in Michigan Wednesday to talk about making community colleges “free.” But in many ways, what he promoted might be best seen in what’s happening in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Promise is the first statewide program in the United States to offer tuition-free community or technical college for every high school graduate who meets the criteria. Many of the students receiving the scholarships are the first in their families to head to college. The cost of the scholarships this year – $12 million to $13 million – is being paid for through the state’s lottery, instead of by taxes.

Not everyone agrees it’s the best approach. Telling people they won’t have to pay tuition can be politically popular, they note, but it isn’t necessarily the best use of scarce resources, according to some education researchers. Targeting aid to the lowest-income students might be more effective than universal free-college programs, some suggest.

But for supporters of the programs, it’s not all about the money. It’s also about high school graduates’ attitudes about college. The promise of free community college, they say, sends an empowering message.

“We’ve seen a conversation change in Tennessee about going to college,” says Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise. “A lot of students count themselves out of higher education,” because they think it’s not affordable, he says. But the Promise “made sure the students understood ... it was absolutely within their reach and created a wider door of access.”

In his Michigan visit, Mr. Obama talked about strategies for making community colleges free. He also announced an initiative to boost apprenticeships.

“For every young person willing to work hard, I want two years of college to be as free and universal as high school is today,” he said. “Having a credential above and beyond your high school diploma – that’s the surest ticket to the middle class.”

Alongside longtime community college educator Jill Biden, the president announced an independent College Promise campaign and national advisory board to promote such efforts.

“Our big interest here is to try to start a bigger national conversation on the importance of education and ... having the nation step up to make a greater financial commitment,” says Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees and a member of the national advisory board.

Earlier this year, Obama proposed $60 billion over 10 years to fund a federal-state partnership for free community college nationwide.

The free-college idea has been catching on:

  • At least 59 US cities have programs that will pay for eligible high school graduates to attend two years of college.
  • Several states are following in Tennessee’s footprints. Oregon will launch a similar statewide scholarship next year, and Minnesota is starting a pilot project.
  • One quarter of community college presidents say that within two years, it is likely that their institution will offer a tuition-free (or nearly free) option for local students, the White House reports.

There hasn’t been a lot of research on the outcomes of programs that pay for two years of college, since many of them are relatively new.

One recent study of the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan, however, showed that the scholarship led to about one-third more students earning a postsecondary credential or degree within six years.

One strength of Kalamazoo’s program, which is good for four years and also can be used at state universities and private colleges in Michigan, is its simplicity, says Brad Hershbein at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo. It’s not clear yet whether such results could be replicated in a program like Tennessee’s, which requires community service and a certain grade-point average. Also, students must apply for federal and state aid before receiving additional scholarship money through the Promise.

The wide variety of programs that tout free college have this asset in common: They build up the whole community’s expectation that any student can afford college. For young students and high-schoolers and their teachers, “it’s likely that the publicity of knowing it’s there and it’s free goes a long way,” Mr. Hershbein says.

Another critique is that most of the “free” college programs cover tuition but don’t offer money for other types of expenses such as books and transportation, which can pose a barrier for many students.

But the Tennessee Promise is reaching a wide swath of students and spawning additional efforts to help students succeed once they reach college.

Community college enrollment among recent high school graduates is up about 15 percent in the state, says Mr. Krause of the Promise. About 15,000 students are starting college this fall through the scholarship. They were matched with trained volunteer mentors last year to help them apply to college and will still be on hand if they hit bumps in what might be foreign terrain.

At Northeast State Community College in Blountville, Tenn., typical fall enrollment was under 700. This year it’s 1,200. Among the new students is a young woman whose family made just enough that she didn’t qualify for federal or state grants. No one in her family had been to college before, so $10,000 for a degree could have been a barrier, says scholarship coordinator Joshua Johnson. Instead, the Promise will pay it all.

To support the influx of new students, Northeast has recruited honors students to serve as mentors and has opened a transfer advising center to help smooth the path to a four-year degree.

In the pilot project in Knoxville that led to the statewide program, 50 percent of the recipients said they would not have attended college were it not for the scholarship and mentoring support, says Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of tnAchieves, one of three groups partnering with the state to provide the mentoring.

“Many of our students see no more in their future than the next government check, and up until now that has been their only option,” writes Sonja Wood, a college access coach at South-Doyle High School in Knoxville, Tenn., in an e-mail to the Monitor. “TNPromise has opened their eyes to see that higher education is not only possible for them but affordable.”

Of the 10,500 scholarship students that tnAchieves has worked with since 2008, the three-year graduation rate from community college has been triple the state average, Ms. DeAlejandro says.

Critics of the free community college approach question, however, whether community colleges are well enough equipped to get larger numbers of students successfully through to graduation. They cite low overall graduation rates for community colleges – about 20 percent graduating in three years.

Krause says those overall rates relate to the fact that many students are not attending full time, but are simply taking a class here or there. For full-time students at the state’s community colleges, the graduation rate is about 68 percent, he says. Tennessee Promise scholars will be required to attend full time.

At technical colleges, where students can earn career-oriented certificates in skills such as welding, the grad rate is even higher.

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