June 19, 2017

The Tennessean: Free tuition isn't enough to get many Tennesseans to college, report finds

By Adam Tamburin

Free tuition isn't enough to get many Tennessee students to enroll in college, according to a new report.

Transportation, "inflexible" class schedules and lost work time are among the barriers cited in the report on struggles students face in different regions of the state. The report, "Room to Grow," was released Monday by advocacy group Complete Tennessee. 

The roll-out of Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect — programs that eliminate community college tuition for high school students and adults, respectively — led many to believe the ”problem was solved,” said Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee.

But conversations at nine round-table meetings across the state revealed the enduring struggles that still keep people from setting foot on campus.

“Everyone had a different set of concerns,” Lovett said.

Lovett said identifying those concerns in this report was a prelude to his group's next step. Complete Tennessee will work with local leaders this year to develop unique "completion strategies" for each area, he said.

The independent nonprofit's work dovetails with an intensified state push to get more students into college and across the graduation stage.

Wide range of challenges identified across the state

The report highlighted several problems keeping students from graduation in each of the nine regions where a round table took place.

Colleges in the Nashville area, for instance, must compete for students who could easily enter the region's booming job market without a degree.

Experts worry that high school graduates are choosing the short-term paycheck for the possibility of higher earnings that a college degree can bring.

In the Memphis area, round table participants lamented the fact that programs aiming to help low-income or first-generation college students lacked the funding needed to help a large number of people. As a result, the report said, there aren't enough educated workers to fill the growing needs of employers there.

And in the Knoxville area, the college-going rate remains relatively low despite the number of high-profile college offerings there. Participants suggested a marketing campaign or a stronger push in K-12 schools to help students understand the college options that could be around the corner.

State has plenty of college data, but this report adds something else

The Complete Tennessee report adds something unique to the state's robust collection of data on college-going: a formal analysis of personal stories.

Emily House, a data expert with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said combining hard numbers with those anecdotes could create a fuller picture of the problems facing students.

“We often talk in hard numbers and (the report) adds a little bit of humanity to it," said House, who is also part of the Complete Tennessee steering committee. “It’s a very important complement to the other work that we do.”

Separating those observations also serves to illustrate the wide range of communities housed in one state. Tennessee's biggest cities face different problems than the isolated rural areas at the far corners of the state. 

"It really does show the variation that’s often masked when we present something at the state level or even at the regional level,” House said.

http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2017/06/20/free-tuition-isnt-enough-get-many-tennessee-students-go-college-report-finds/409566001/