The Campaign for Free College Tuition kicked off Spring by hosting another successful regional Summit on College Affordability. The event was held in Nashville on March 30th and included representatives from 10 states – including gubernatorial staff and State Higher Education Executive Officers – anxious to learn about the Tennessee Promise program and other pioneering place-based scholarship programs in the South. We were also glad that former Arkansas Lt. Governor, and current CFCT steering committee member, Bill Halter, was able to join us.
The event would not have been possible without Governor Haslam's staff willingness to share how the Tennessee Promise advanced from a community based scholarship program in Knox County to a statewide program that is the centerpiece of the Governor’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks to have 55% percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025.
Mike Krause, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Promise in the Office of Governor Haslam, helped kick-off the Summit by noting that Tennessee was 43rd in the nation in 2015 in terms of education attainment by state. This point was magnified when Mike showed longitudinal data from the 2007 cohort of high school freshman indicating that 30% of them entered the workforce directly after high school. This subgroup had a $9,030 annual income and only a 30% chance of earning above the minimum wage. The Tennessee Promise – which incorporates mentorship, a last dollar scholarship to a two-year community or technical college and a framework focused on college success– advanced with overwhelming support through a Republican controlled legislature to help change the narrative for a state seeking to be a national leader in advanced manufacturing.
The first Tennessee Promise cohort of 15,800, which enrolled in the Fall, helped increase freshman enrollment at community colleges by 24.7% and 20% at Colleges of Applied Technology. Tennessee is currently the number one state in the nation for FAFSA completions – as it is a requirement for the Tennessee Promise – and accounted for 40% of all new financial aid submissions nationwide. Mike also reported that the second Tennessee Promise cohort is also looking strong with 59,635 applicants.
Randy Boyd, Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development, was the Summit’s concluding speaker and offered his perspective not just as a senior advisor to the Governor who is seeking to attract new businesses into the state, but as a successful entrepreneur that championed Knoxville Achieves – a place-based scholarship in Eastern Tennessee. Then Mayor of Knoxville Bill Haslam – and current Governor – served on Knoxville Achieves’ Board of Directors. The successor organization, tnAchieves, was represented at the summit by Executive Director Krissy DeAlejandro is currently providing mentoring to Tennessee Promise applicants in 85 of 95 counties in the state.
Other Summit highlights included:
A panel discussion on pioneering promise programs in the South featuring the El Dorado Promise, Shoals (Alabama) Scholars Dollars, and programs organized by the CREATE Foundation in Southeast Mississippi. Sylvia Thomas, Executive Director of the El Dorado Promise, reported that the Promise has created a college going culture in El Dorado, a small city of 18,500 is Southern Arkansas, which is evidenced by data showing that 85% of promise-eligible El Dorado High School graduates enroll in college surpassing the state average of 63% and national average of 67%. Furthermore, a quarter of the El Dorado Promise scholars enrolled in college are first generation college students.
Multiple speakers talked about Promise Programs as workforce development initiatives, from Lewis Whitfield from the CREATE Foundation in MS to Alabama’s Chancellor of their community college system, Mark Heinrich, as well as Randy Boyd. Mr. Whitfield noted that “there’s only one way to push per-capita income up in Mississippi, and that’s education attainment.”
There was extensive talk about creating a college going culture in the South. The El Dorado Promise, for example, visits every kindergarten class and tells these young students that they will go to college. The Tennessee Promise makes extensive use of mentors to assist students with the transition to college. Jojo Armstrong, a Tennessee Promise scholar at Nashville State Community College, reported that she was not initially planning to attend college. But thanks to the Tennessee Promise, and the mentorship she received, she enrolled and is now focused on a career in journalism.
Sara Goldrick-Rab in her keynote address entitled First Degree for Free challenged the notion that two-years of college are already free or nearly free. Calculations that compare average community college costs to federal aid programs fail to point out that 1) tax credits are not aid; 2) students do not pay “average” prices (which is skewed by low tuition cost in California and Texas); and 3) many expenses such as books and transportation are often overlooked. She believes that “free college” must include: reduced price; a simplified message about price (free) and about universal (non-mean tested) commitment to public higher education; increased resources for public postsecondary institutions (including instructional costs & support services); greater accountability for both institutions and states; and a sustained public commitment to public higher education. She further indicated that universal programs, which garner more political support and stability and are often better at reducing inequality, and require only modest giveaways to upper-income families.
David Wiley of Lumen Learning provided an excellent presentation on using Open Educational Resources (OER) to reduce the cost of attending college. He opened his remarks using Florida data to highlight that 35% of students take fewer courses because of textbook costs and subsequently provided information illustrating that students who use OER resources do as well as – or better than – students using traditional textbooks. At Tidewater Community College in Virginia, a OER-based “Z Degree” shaves 25% from the total cost of a degree.
CFCT looks forward to working with Governor Haslam’s staff, speakers and attendees to expand college affordability and access in the South. Our final regional Summit on College Affordability will be held in New York City at the Ford Foundation on June 21.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.