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VOL. 39 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 23, 2015

Students finding opportunities via Tennessee Promise

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Siegel High School graduate Davione Williamson wasn’t quite sure he was college material when he entered Motlow State Community College in Smyrna this August on a Tennessee Promise scholarship.

But after going through the mentoring and community service requirements, in addition to working with Motlow completion coach Sidney McPhee, Williamson is confident he can earn an associate’s degree and more.

“It really helped me apply myself for college and get myself ready for it,” Williamson says after finishing a mock job interview for one of his courses.

“And plus, with the no cost, that really helped me a lot. Even if it’s for two years, something’s better than nothing. All I have to do now is figure out how to pay for my other two years when I transfer to MTSU.”

Williamson is one of more than 15,800 students taking advantage of the Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam’s free tuition program for freshmen students at 13 community colleges, including an estimated 1,700 attending Tennessee’s 27 colleges of applied technology.

It’s part of the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative to put degrees or certificates in the hands of more than half of Tennessee adults by 2025.

Besides diving into college as an athletic training major, Williamson is working at Save-A-Lot and Burger King in Murfreesboro, so setting aside time each day to study, work and go to class is becoming a big part of his life.

“That’s key for a college student, time management,” he says. “If you can’t manage your time in college, then how are you going to do your work and pass your classes?”

Working with McPhee, son of the MTSU president, and taking advantage of simple tips such as reading papers aloud to find mistakes is building his confidence, he says.

By coincidence, McPhee met Williamson and his mother before he entered Motlow, helping him sign up for freshmen orientation and an entrance test. Now, he’s a big part of the young man’s life.

“I remember when he came in, he was really nervous about school and if he was going to be able to do well. He was thinking about his ACT scores and how he did in high school, and I remember having to tell him, ‘Just take your time. It’s a new, fresh, clean slate,’” McPhee says.

McPhee works with more than 400 students, selecting courses, reviewing papers, scheduling study time and generally encouraging them to keep up the hard work.

“It’s an academic coach,” he says. “It’s helping students transition from high school to college so they don’t have some of the pitfalls.

Managing time, reading to retain information, remembering and understanding facts for tests and quizzes and improving study skills are keys to student success, he points out.

Krause

Tennessee Promise is about more than financial aid, says the program’s executive director, Mike Krause, and he points out the students are entering college “in a fundamentally different way” than any other group of freshmen in community college history.

“It’s about support for the student once they get to college,” he says.

Scholars participating in the program must go to college full time, and they aren’t allowed to have a gap in attendance, such as taking off a semester, Krause notes, and that improves the graduation rate. They can reach out to their mentors, as well, to let them know they’re having trouble with financial aid or registration and just to get some support.

Cases such as Williamson’s are Tennessee Promise’s “central goal,” Krause says.

Whereas students might have counted themselves out of college in the past without giving it an opportunity, through this program they’re getting the boost they need to enroll, then the confidence required to excel.

Administrative reaction

Kinkel

Motlow State President Anthony Kinkel, who stepped in for MaryLou Apple just two months ago, says the college “benefited” more than any other in the state from Tennessee Promise.

Enrollment jumped to 2,300 at the Smyrna campus, where the full-time equivalent number used to measure enrollment is up 60 percent, 70 percent of which is attributable to the Tennessee Promise, Kinkel says.

The enrollment increase brought some challenges, including the need for a security officer to handle parking, he notes.

Motlow, which also has campuses in Moore County, McMinnville and Fayetteville, hired 40 more adjunct teachers and three more full-time faculty members to cope with enrollment growth, Kinkel says, along with eight completion coaches whose job is to help students make the transition from high school to college.

In addition to Motlow State building its completion coaching staff, Northeast State and Volunteer State in Gallatin added eight each this fall to make sure students stay on track.

“I think each college is responding in their own way and with their own set of initiatives. But I think the completion coach approach is really one of the best practices and hope it continues to disseminate statewide,” Krause says.

Those completion coaches are crucial because the state’s college funding formula is based on the number of students who finish two-year and four-year programs, not on enrollment figures.

“It’s going to require us to have a tremendous effort to retain these students and get them to graduate,” Kinkel says. “More students are coming with more challenges than in the past.”

Parents are urging their children to go to community college because of the free tuition, he adds. This situation means educators will have to reach students in the eighth or ninth grade to start gearing them up for college work, Kinkel says.

“It’s going to take a while for the system to catch up to Tennessee Promise because many of them are not prepared,” he says.

That’s where Motlow’s completion coaches enter the picture, putting students in better shape to study and learn, Kinkel says.

“You’d be surprised how many students come to our door and they don’t have a dream,” he says. “If you can’t dream it, you can’t do it.”

With Rutherford County projected to see a 50,000 population increase in the next few years, Kinkel also believes Motlow needs to start working toward another building, even though it opened a new classroom building for the sciences just two years ago.

The school’s 2006 master plan calls for Smyrna calls for a 17,000-square-foot building, Kinkel says, adding a building with a minimum of 30,000 square feet is now necessary.

“No one could have dreamed of the Tennessee Promise in 2006,” he notes.

Krause, on the other hand, says brick and mortar are less likely to come into play than alternatives such as online courses or flexible schedules. Legislators aren’t too hyped about constructing more buildings either.

Across the state

In many cases, Tennessee’s community colleges added faculty this fall to back a new program called the co-requisite model of learning support, which replaces a system of non-credit pre-requisite remedial courses for students whose ACT or Compass test scores show they need more work before starting college-level math or English courses.

This year, all students are enrolled in credit-bearing courses with support or supplementary instruction, according to Tennessee Board of Regents spokeswoman Monica Greppin-Watts.

A system-wide pilot study last year showed an increase from 12 percent of students in the older remedial course to 63 percent passing with the co-requisite program.

Chattanooga State, for instance, hired five new full-time English faculty members and one new full-time math teacher, mainly because of the co-requisite model, and supplemented with extra adjunct teachers.

At nearby Cleveland State, the administration added two full-time faculty and took all full-time faculty in math, English and reading into “overload” schedules, in addition to hiring 10 part-time teachers. As far as space goes, Cleveland State is making it “stretch” this year, but if enrollment continues going up, it will need more space, according to college officials.

Enrollment at Tennessee’s junior colleges hasn’t climbed back to the numbers seen five years ago in the midst of recession, when people were going to school in droves to build their resumes. But freshmen enrollment straight out of high school is up 14 percent, according to Krause.

With a Nov. 2 deadline looming to apply for Tennessee Promise in 2016, Gov. Haslam sent a message to the state’s high school seniors recently, encouraging them to sign up.

“This is an opportunity for you to fulfill your potential, and you have an opportunity to change the future for yourself and for our state,” Haslam says in a statement.

Because of Tennessee Promise, Tennessee is leading the nation in the number of students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), making up 40 percent of the country’s growing in FAFSA filings this year.

The con

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who is largely responsible for passing the lottery and Hope Scholarship and, thus, funding for Tennessee Promise, is critical of the program.

Cohen, a Memphis Democrat who served for years in the state Legislature before moving on to Washington, D.C., points out the program is a last-dollar scholarship because it applies only after federal funds and other scholarships are exhausted.

Consequently, Pell Grant recipients won’t benefit much, nor will students who excel in high school and attend four-year institutions. “Low-achievers” and the affluent are most likely to receive the funding, he contends, rather than the “dreamers” and “thinkers” destined for four-year schools.

No doubt, those students more interested in attending four-year institutions and earning graduate degrees would benefit from Hope Scholarship increases enabling them to avoid building up massive college debt, which averages about $24,500 for Tennessee students.

Tennessee also must find a way to make sure high school graduates don’t need so much remedial work when they reach community college.

Krause, however, says Tennessee Promise isn’t taking money from the Hope Scholarship program because those students still receive up to $16,000 over four years.

He also contends the number of Tennesseans going to college decreased since the Hope Scholarship took effect.

“So in order to meet the demands of a new economy we need a new approach, and I think Tennessee Promise represents that best pathway. But I think that last-dollar approach, the important thing around that is just because a student doesn’t meet academic standards for Hope doesn’t mean they weren’t applying themselves,” Krause says.

“There were a lot of students Hope was missing, we think we’re gonna be able to help with Tennessee Promise.”

He also points toward numerous articles in national publications highlighting Tennessee’s efforts in higher education, specifically the Tennessee Promise.

“It’s a moment of time when our state has set the table for a national conversation. I think any time we’re in that position, it’s a good thing,” Krause says.

Soon, though, the same sorts of promises should be made to all of Tennessee’s collegians.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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