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The free community college experiment everyone is watching

September 10, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
Tennessee is expecting record enrollment at its community colleges this year, under a new program that guarantees two years of tuition for free for students who meet some simple requirements. But can schools keep the students enrolled? Special correspondent Yasmeen Qureshi reports on an educational experiment that’s being watched around the country.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, as the school year begins and college campuses spring back to life, one state is starting what could be the first of many experiments with free community college.

President Obama has been making the case for it on the road this week.

Special correspondent Yasmeen Qureshi went to Tennessee to see how campuses are handling the experiment.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Every year, more than 10,000 students pour into Tennessee’s community colleges.

WOMAN: We want you to come, so that you can get kind of an understanding, a feel for campus.

YASMEEN QURESHI: This year, community colleges in Tennessee are anticipating record enrollment as a part of a new statewide program called Tennessee Promise.

Here in Nashville, Tennessee, the governor is implementing a new program that guarantees community college to students for free for two years. Some experts say it could be a game-changer in higher education. And Tennessee is the first state in the country to give it a shot.

CEDRIC GREGORY, Student: I’m going to make sure that I’m keeping school my number one priority. I really just want to graduate and make sure that my life is on the track that it needs to be.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Cedric Gregory will be a freshman at Volunteer State Community College as a part of Tennessee Promise. Before the program started, he wasn’t planning on going to college right out of high school.

CEDRIC GREGORY: I’m already stressing out about it. I already know it’s going to be tough, but as long as I keep my head on straight, I think I will be able to do it.

YASMEEN QURESHI: He will work part-time to support himself and help his mom out at home and sees college as a way to avoid the pitfalls in his small rural hometown north of Nashville.

CEDRIC GREGORY: Using the kids who drop out and constantly mess up their own life, I use them as an example. Like, this is not what I want to be. I want to do something with my life.

YASMEEN QURESHI: To take part, students had to fill out the federal application for student aid, meet with a volunteer mentor and do eight hours of community service. More than 22,000 students met the final August deadline for eligibility.

GOV. BILL HASLAM (R), Tennessee: I think, to me, the most rewarding thing is you go into a room where we have mentors working with students.

YASMEEN QURESHI: The requirements, Governor Bill Haslam says, were simple by design.

GOV. BILL HASLAM: There really is an income gap that has been created in this country. And I think at the heart of that is a difference in educational opportunities.

And so for families that either can’t afford it or just don’t think they can afford it, we had to do something to change that. And, selfishly as a state, we had to be able to say to employers out there, you’re looking for a trained work force and you need more skills training than they have had before, we can provide that in Tennessee.

YASMEEN QURESHI: In fact, Haslam says, the country as a whole is lagging behind when it comes to education.

GOV. BILL HASLAM: I think, as recently as 10 years ago, the United States ranked second in the world in the percentage of its population with a degree beyond high school. I think now we have slipped to 10th, 11th, or 12th. Forever, one of the competitive advantages we have had as a country is that had better post-secondary education than anyone else ever did. But that is changing.

YASMEEN QURESHI: The U.S. is slipping. As more and more jobs require an education beyond high school, the portion of adults with a college degree or certificate has stalled.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama unveiled his own proposal for a federal free community college program. It’s modeled in part on the Tennessee approach, but under president’s plan, the federal government pays 75 percent of the student’s tuition and the state pays 25 percent.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Community colleges should be free for those willing to work for it, because, in America, a quality education cannot be a privilege that’s reserved for a few.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Students in Tennessee are showing up. Volunteer State is enrolling about 500 more students than last year, increasing the total student body by 6 percent. Emily Short leads student services and enrollment for the campus.

EMILY SHORT, Volunteer State Community College: I think that in the state of Tennessee, with the inception of the Promise program, that we in higher education — during my 24 years in higher education, I think that we have been more encouraged by the state, by our governing board of Tennessee Board of Regents to be more innovative in what we do.

YASMEEN QURESHI: But keeping students enrolled is another challenge. At Volunteer State, just 16 percent of students graduate and 11 percent transfer to another school.

EMILY SHORT: A lot of our students are first-generation, meaning that their parents never completed a college degree. And so they really just don’t have a strong support network to encourage them to go to college, because I don’t think that sometimes they understand the importance and the benefit behind it.

EDITH LESTER, Volunteer State Community College: So, what I want you to do now is, before, we looked at multiplication and division of the fractions, algebraic fractions. Do a quick review right here.

YASMEEN QURESHI: That’s why Vol State and other colleges are giving students new supports to help them stay in school. One of them is a summer program that gives students who have low test scores a chance to improve their math and English skills. The three-week courses review crucial high school material before the school year starts.

STUDENT: To make it like Y-squared.

EDITH LESTER: How am I going to make it Y-squared?

YASMEEN QURESHI: Edith Lester is a professor at Vol State. She has seen the toll that starting behind can take on students academically.

EDITH LESTER: Many of them are coming out of high schools not as prepared as we need them to be. If they can bridge those gaps, they come in to college at the same level as a student who doesn’t have those gaps, and that’s fair, because if they don’t bridge those gaps, it’s kind of like they’re already at a losing end.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Still, not everyone in Tennessee thinks the colleges can deliver on the promise they’re making to new freshmen.

Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen helped launch a scholarship program in the state that students can also use at four-year colleges. He says that’s a big advantage, when you take graduation rates into account.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), Tennessee: Only 13 percent of the students who start at community colleges end up, within four years, graduating community college. So you’re taking and putting monies into an 87 percent failure program.

YASMEEN QURESHI: And, Cohen says, community college is already free for needy students who qualify for federal grants.

REP. STEVE COHEN: The people that get the most money out of this are going to be, basically, folks who’ve got higher incomes and didn’t accomplish. Slackers.

YASMEEN QURESHI: But the governor says it’s not about who gets the tuition money. His goal is simple: getting as many Tennessee students as possible to enroll in college.

GOV. BILL HASLAM: Free gets everybody’s attention. And the reason we have record numbers of kids applying for financial aid, the reason we have record numbers of kids applying to go to school is the Tennessee Promise has gotten their attention.

YASMEEN QURESHI: And the campaign seems to be working. Free tuition is what brought Cedric and his friend Nicholas Tays to campus.

CEDRIC GREGORY: My mom is single, so I would be paying for most of my stuff. So I would have to work a couple years just to save up enough money for tuition, for even just a couple years, so…

NICHOLAS TAYS, Student: And by the time all that happens, we’re already stuck in a working lifestyle, and it’s too hard to get out of it.

YASMEEN QURESHI: To keep receiving Promise dollars, they will have to maintain at least a C average, be enrolled full-time and do more community service each year. Gregory knows what will keep him motivated.

CEDRIC GREGORY: I will be the first to finish college, yes, out of my whole family. So, the fact that I can do that is — it’s pretty cool just to have the title in my family first to graduate.

YASMEEN QURESHI: If the state’s experiment goes as planned, many more Tennessee students will be claiming that title.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Yasmeen Qureshi in Nashville.