Colleges shift on Haslam’s new plan

2/8/2017

Three years after he transformed the state’s college landscape with Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam is poised to change the game again.

During his annual State of the State address, Haslam sent shock waves through the academic community by announcing his plan to open community colleges to millions of adult students tuition-free. It’s a simple idea with an incredibly ambitious goal and far-reaching implications.

College leaders are still digging into the details. But in a series of interviews, leading education experts agreed it could re-frame campus life in a way similar to Tennessee Promise, which has sent more than 33,000 recent high school graduates to community college tuition-free since 2015.

“It’s an immense opportunity for us,” said Flora Tydings, who oversees the state’s 13 community colleges as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, a job she started Wednesday. “I could not have asked for a better announcement in my first week coming into the job.”

Tydings said that, as the Reconnect scholarship works its way through the legislature this year, community college leaders will begin expanding services for adult students. More night or weekend classes are on the table, she said, as are “wrap-around services” that might connect adults with child care options.

Although the Reconnect scholarship represents a seismic shift for the state’s efforts to expand college access, it has the same philosophical DNA as Tennessee Promise. And it is the latest in a long line of attempts to tackle a problem nearly everyone agrees needs fixing: There are not enough working adults in Tennessee with a college degree.

A grant program launched in 2015 offered any adult Tennessean a chance to go to technical college for free. Another program that started around the same time offered tuition-free community college, too, although that program required adults to come with a significant amount of college credit. Last year the state poured $1 million into an advertising and publicity blitz to push adults with a significant amount of college credit back into higher education for a degree.

Despite the state’s continued efforts, the problem has only become more pronounced in the past few years, as a rebounding economy sent adult students returning to the workforce — and away from campus — in droves.

In 2010, when the Great Recession drove Tennessee’s unemployment levels higher than 10 percent, a surge of older students came to Board of Regents colleges and universities for added training. That fall nearly 40,000 students who were 25 or older enrolled in the college system.

But those numbers have dropped along with the unemployment rate. In fall 2016, when state unemployment fell to around 5 percent, the same enrollment figure sank to about 20,000 students.

State estimates suggest about 20,000 adult students would use the Reconnect scholarship to enroll in community college every year, starting with the first class in 2018.

Tydings said such an influx would be a boon for community colleges struggling to rebuild their adult enrollment.

“This will enhance what we do,” Tydings said. “It’s not like this is something we’ve never done. It’s just that we’re not doing as much of it right now.”

 

Different students, different challenges

There are thousands of adult students who already turn to Tennessee’s community colleges for a lifeline. But their challenges are wholly different from the ones their 18-year-old peers face. And their stories illuminate the reality colleges will have to address if the Reconnect scholarship is to succeed.

Gaynell Payne had wanted to go back to school for decades, but she couldn’t bring herself to look into it. Every headline about sky-high tuition told her all she needed to know.

But, she said, a TV commercial showing the governor promoting his suite of college access programs made her reconsider. The 43-year-old single mom did some research. She was stunned by what she found.

“I realized that I qualified all along for financial aid,” she said. “It never occurred to me. There’s not a lot of information out there. You always hear about how expensive college is instead.”

But cost wasn’t her only hurdle.

Every day became a juggling act. Payne learned to manage her schoolwork at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin and a part-time job writing social media posts at the college along with the responsibilities of raising her 10-year-old son, Jaden.

Sometimes, those worlds collided, as they did Monday, when Payne had to take her sick son along to French class. At home, Payne and Jaden have had to adjust to a new routine that includes homework for both of them.

Schedules are “always a problem” for adult students, said Kenneth Hanson, the manager of veterans affairs and adult learners at Vol State. Staff try to accommodate that by steering adults toward online and night classes whenever possible. Under the Reconnect scholarship, Hanson said, those offerings would probably need to expand.

One part of the Reconnect proposal that excited Payne and Hanson was that it would require adults to take only two classes per semester. The state’s previous scholarship program required at least three courses every semester, which many adults found prohibitive.

Payne said that despite the culture shock, and the awkward reality of being older than many of her classmates and some of her professors, college has become a family dream.

When she won a speech contest at Vol State, her son beamed with pride in the audience.

“This changed his whole perspective,” said Payne, who is on track to finish an associate’s degree in English this year. “Now I feel like I’m teaching him how to succeed while I’m learning how to succeed. It’s a journey that we’re taking together.”

Hanson said those successes can happen for many adult students, but they need help “making it work with their life.”

Right now, Hanson said, a staff of two full-time employees is helping about 3,000 adults at Vol State with that work. If the Reconnect scholarship grows that number significantly, administrative support would need to grow too, he said.

“It’s going to take some more effort to be able to put that all together,” Hanson said. “We’ve got few enough adults (now) that a couple can handle it. Depending on how many numbers we’re talking about then it may become a bigger issue.”

Reconnect-centered changes are sure to be more pronounced at community colleges facing a potential enrollment spike. But they are even prompting changes at universities, too. Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee acknowledged that he was considering the impact the state’s push could have on university enrollment.

He drew a parallel with Tennessee Promise, which boosted enrollment at community colleges while most state universities saw dips.

“While that is an element of concern, we’re not panicking, we’re not suggesting that it’s a bad initiative,” McPhee said. “We’re going to find a way to complement it and strengthen what we’re already doing.”

McPhee said he was meeting with senior administrators to discuss ways the university could continue to attract adults who might prefer a university environment. He said the university also would look to develop stronger transfer pathways for adults who do go to community colleges. Payne, the Vol State student, is looking forward to transferring to a university after her graduation. She hopes the added education will lead to a better life.

“I was basically just qualified to wait tables and that doesn’t get you anywhere,” she said. “I need to be able to provide for my son.”

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by ADAM TAMBURIN

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

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