Free Tuition Could Save Community Colleges – But What If Students Need More?
FFive years ago, Brooke Clark never believed she would be on the Dean’s List. In fact, Clark had always felt guilty for not having finished college.
After graduating from high school in 2013, Clark cared for his ailing father, worked full time, and attended a new college aimlessly. She dropped out after the first year.
Over the next several years, Clark says she “grew up,” began therapy for anxiety and depression, and thought more seriously about her future. âI really needed to focus on developing my work ethic, becoming a better employee and setting standards for myself,â she said.
The thought of going back to college still nagged her.
“Just call, ask for information,” suggested her therapist one day. A colleague had mentioned a program called Tennessee Reconnect that could help pay for college. She went to the website and was set up with a âReconnect Navigator,â or advisor, to discuss her options.
Now Clark is a sophomore at Nashville State Community College studying Computer Information Technology. She, in fact, made the Dean’s List. And she did so with the support of Tennessee Reconnect, a state mentorship and financial support program that covers community college tuition for adults over 24 who graduate from school for the first time. post-secondary.
The program launched in 2018 with a stunning response. The Tennessee Higher Education Commission expected about 10,000 applications. Four times that number applied. The trend continued in the second year of the program. As part of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to have 55% of adults in Tennessee graduate from post-secondary education by 2025, the state has seen a 30% increase the number of mature students attending post-secondary programs after the launch of Tennessee Reconnect.
Then COVID-19 happened.
Community colleges have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with national enrollments dropping 9.5 percent. In comparison, private 4-year nonprofit colleges saw only a 2% drop. In Tennessee, community college enrollments are down 11.5%.
Emily House, executive director of THEC, says mature students have been hit in a particular way. They are more likely to have children who learn on their own at home, often making devices or bandwidth even less available for their own studies. They are also more likely to be hesitant about virtual learning than their younger peers.
Enrollment in the Tennessee Reconnect program fell 15% according to the Tennessee Board of Regents, which operates community colleges in the state. But even with the decline this year, the program’s initial success translates into a net gain in adult students returning to school. Officials blame the program for not having a higher dropout rate, like some other states that have seen enrollment numbers drop even more drastically. They also believe that once things start to normalize again after the pandemic, programs like Reconnect will be crucial for the resumption of higher education.
But one school is going against the trend. Nashville state, where Clark attends, has seen a total enrollment drop of about 11%, as have most schools in the state. But it has actually seen a slight increase in the number of Tennessee Reconnect students this year. Reconnect students, administrators and browsers all interviewed the merit of the school’s holistic approach to mature students.
Clark said going back to school would have been impossible without Tennessee Reconnect because she couldn’t have afforded it. But she attributes her success to more than just financial aid.
âIf you put in the time in the state of Nashville, the state of Nashville will take the time,â she said.
âWe realized very quickly that the balance between going to school, working and taking care of your family is difficult in all situations. And for those who had never been to college, it was getting a little overwhelming. We had to create additional supports, âsaid Nashville State President Shanna Jackson.
Fred Frazier, often referred to as the âmayorâ of the state of Nashville, was at the heart of this approach. Frazier has been a Reconnect browser since the inception of the program.
Beyond his workload, he opened a âReconnect Cafeâ at the school. A space with free coffee, drinks and snacks is a place where students can work or chat. Students often started coming to the âcafeâ for refreshments, but they stayed for conversation and support.
Frazier believes that making information easily accessible and talking informally to students about their experiences is the key to success. Even if a non-Reconnect student needs something outside the scope of the program, they make sure they are talking to the right person. Whether students come with academic issues, financial aid issues, or family concerns, Frazier is always ready with a disarming candy joke (his favorite is the Peach Double Crust Cobbler), a box of tissues. or a phone call to the right resource.
Nashville State is part of the City’s Talent Hub, an initiative to provide services and increase opportunities for the high poverty âpromising areaâ of Nashville. Through the hub, Jackson works with city agencies, local partners, and private donors to set up programs to help students with child care, transportation, and more. financial aid.
It was through informal conversations with students that Frazier realized needs beyond tuition assistance, such as the cost of textbooks. After some brainstorming and discussions with other partners, Frazier and Jackson were able to find a way to cover textbook costs for Reconnect students.
The âcafeâ closed when the college moved away, but the relationships already established have helped students stay engaged, even virtually. Frazier remained the go-to person for assistance. More and more students began to wonder how to connect to wifi, what to do if they needed a computer, or how to avoid expulsion. As the needs increased during the pandemic, Frazier’s pre-existing reputation as someone who would find answers became even more crucial.
Frazier continued to meet the students where they are. Students responded to text messages better than phone calls, so he found ways to send bulk text messages with significant delays. He ran open Zoom sessions where students could just go. Although he lacks in-person interaction, these adjustments allowed him to stay in touch with students in the best way the pandemic would allow.
But the state of Nashville has also been able to recruit new students, again thanks to past investments. Together with another Reconnect Navigator Minzi Thomas, they run a âReconnect Ambassadorâ program. They form groups in support service roles – Department of Social Services employees, financial aid officers and community leaders – specific to Tennessee Reconnect so that they can offer information about the program in their own circles. Jackson and Thomas are also organizing a “listening tour” to determine what other obstacles might stand in the way of adults’ academic ambitions.
Jackson thinks the national discussion about free community colleges is a crucial first step, but his experience at Nashville State shows that some students need more than just tuition help to pursue higher education.
âWe’re not leaving anyone behind,â she said.
Melanie Bavaria is a multimedia education journalist and contributor to Next City
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