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In Tennessee, educators and lawmakers are developing a program to reach out to adult learners who have some college credit, but never completed their degrees through a program called Tennessee Reconnect. This program could serve as a blueprint for helping U.S. adults finish what they started. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tennessee is investing in a program that helps adults finish their college degree. Will it boost the economy?

A decade ago, when Lara Mechling was a college freshman at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, she decided she’d rather party than study. She dropped out midway through the spring semester, a decision that haunted her for years.

In August, the 29-year-old mother got a second chance. She walked onto the campus of Pellissippi State Community College, sat on a stool in her biology laboratory, and began working to complete the college degree she had thought she’d never finish.

“It’s an opportunity to redeem yourself in your own eyes,” Mechling said.

Mechling enrolled in college through an ambitious pilot program underway in Knoxville that helps adults who either didn’t finish their post-secondary education or never enrolled in the first place earn a college degree, tuition-free.

Tennessee Reconnect, spearheaded in part by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, is being piloted to different extents across the state. It will be available to all community college students in Tennessee next August. The program zeroes in on the financial burden of college — one of the biggest reasons Tennesseans give when asked why they didn’t finish their education — by covering tuition and mandatory fees for residents who don’t already have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. It could ultimately help roughly 900,000 adults across the state finish their college degrees — and, advocates say, potentially attract more employers to Tennessee while boosting the state’s economy.

It’s a model that’s already shown success at Pellissippi State in Knoxville, Tennessee, through its pilot program called Reconnect Now. In 2015, former President Barack Obama traveled to Pellissippi State to unveil America’s College Promise, a nationwide program that offered free community college to students who studied at least part-time and kept a 2.5 grade point average.

Nearly three years later, Pellissippi State’s total enrollment has jumped 10 percent, the school said in August, mostly due to adult learners returning to the classroom through Reconnect Now, the school’s own version of the program.

Out of more than 11,200 students enrolled at Pellissippi State’s five campuses this fall, a fifth go to class through Reconnect Now. Nearly 1,700 of those incoming adult students are enrolling for the first time. Overall, these numbers rival the kind of record-breaking enrollment Pellissippi State saw during the Great Recession, as people nationwide returned to school at community colleges because they couldn’t find work. Going back to the classroom can be scary, especially for people who quit school years, if not decades earlier. Among adult learners, Reconnect has “been really well-received,” Wise said.

The economic potential for individual residents is also huge, policymakers say. While not all students who complete a degree in state will stay there, Tennessee is on track to keep 529,000 graduates through the Reconnect program. Those people could collectively earn more than $9.33 billion in income and generate an additional $746 million in tax revenues each year by 2025, state analysts say, a substantial addition to the $11 billion the state already collects annually.

But will it work? It all depends on how well college campuses can encourage, and empower, adult learners to go back to class, experts say.

People quit school for a host of reasons — no money, workplace demands, family sickness or a new child. In a growing number of states across the country, institutions are thinking about how to tackle cost, scheduling, childcare and transportation, all obstacles that stand between adult learners and their return to the classroom. In Tennessee, policymakers say findings solutions to those problems could mean big payoffs for the state.

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In 2013, Tennessee projected that more than half of state’s jobs — 55 percent — would require a college degree or credentials by 2025. But that same year, only 33 percent of Tennesseans between the ages of 25 and 64 had earned a college degree. And even if all 645,000 high school students expected to graduate between 2014 and 2022 pursue their higher education in state, Tennessee still won’t have enough college graduates to meet looming workforce demands.

So to fill the 871,000 jobs the state expects to create in coming years, policymakers turned their attention to Tennesseans who hold some college credit but no degree — a fifth of the state’s working-age population.

Nationwide, the U.S. Census reports nearly 45 million Americans — 21 percent of those over the age of 25 — are in the same situation. A number of states are exploring how to better reach students who pass on college because of debt. New York was the first state to offer a tuition-free, four-year public university education to residents through the Excelsior Scholarship, and California has weighed legislation to launch similar programs.

Tennessee policymakers have looked at some of those efforts, but also to best practices developing locally that could be scaled across the state, said Jennifer Donnals, press secretary for Gov. Haslam.

In 2013, Gov. Haslam launched his Drive to 55 campaign, which in part created the Tennessee Promise scholarship, designed to give all high school graduates two years of free tuition at community and technical colleges in state. In 2014, the state extended tuition-free community college through this scholarship to all newly-minted high school graduates. And in May, legislators in Nashville approved Tennessee Reconnect to make community colleges tuition-free for adults age 24 or older, effective August 1, 2018. (The program is funded by the state lottery.)

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama shakes hands as he arrives to speak about during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Obama made the case that two years of community college should be free and universally available, a proposal he said on Thursday he would flesh out in his State of the Union speech later this month. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama shakes hands as he arrives to speak about during a visit to Pellissippi State College in Knoxville, Tennessee. Obama made the case that two years of community college should be free and universally available, a proposal he said on Thursday he would flesh out in his State of the Union speech later this month. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A pared-down version has been piloted at Pellissippi State, the largest community college in Tennessee. To open the door as wide as possible, Wise said Pellissippi State “bought every billboard we could.”

Some billboards were stark in their simplicity. One featured a blue field with the message: “ADULTS. FREE TUITION. FALL 2017,” then offered Pellissippi State’s name asked, “Do you qualify? Reconnect Now.”

For months, motorists in Knoxville whizzed past these billboards scattered across the city. Lara Mechling was one of them. When she saw one in June, she said, she thought for the first time in years: “Oh my gosh, this is perfect. I can finally go back and do this correctly.”

She had already lost hope that she’d return to college.

In May 2006, three weeks after she graduated from high school, Mechling said her family had to move from Rochester Hills, Michigan, in suburban Detroit, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, after an investment firm bought out her father’s employer.

Mechling had always loved chemistry and analyzing numbers and facts to unlock clues and solve a problem. She wanted to study at Georgia Tech, but the day she received her acceptance letter to her dream school, her dad sat her down at the family’s kitchen table and told her he could no longer afford Georgia Tech’s out-of-state tuition. All of her safety schools in Michigan were no longer an option, either.

Crushed, Mechling enrolled at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She excelled in chemistry and calculus and tested well enough to place in junior-level French as a freshman. But at 18 years old, Mechling said she lacked the coping skills to deal with her family’s move and how it changed her life. Midway through spring semester of her freshman year, she said, “I self-combusted.” She decided to drop out.

She moved back into her parents’ home. For two years, she trained horses on a farm, then worked as a bar manager and server at a P.F. Chang’s in Chattanooga for six years before managing inventory. She rarely worked fewer than 55 hours a week and constantly multi-tasked. As a manager, she realized she loved to interact with people, especially when they asked her how to solve problems that emerged in their personal lives. There, Mechling said she noticed similarities between science and social work.

In November 2016, she transferred jobs to Knoxville, found out she was pregnant, and then that she was fired, she said. In April, she gave birth to her son, Stone.

Mechling said she never felt good about dropping out of college or wasting her parents’ money. But seeing those billboards over and over again inspired her to think about her potential again. Now, she wants to become a social worker. She’ll graduate with an associate’s degree in fall 2018 and then plans to transfer to East Tennessee State University in Sevierville, about 25 miles away, to complete her bachelor’s degree in social work.

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The program helping Mechling and others earn their degree is about more than just tuition. As Tennessee Reconnect takes deeper roots across the state, colleges and communities will have to rethink how they approach education and adult learners, said Mike Krause, the director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and a key architect of the state’s more innovative college outreach efforts. Do campuses offer child care? Have colleges accounted for students with family or job obligations and scheduled enough courses online, at night and during the weekends to meet those needs?

“You can’t deliver instruction the way you used to,” Krause said.

Pellissippi State President Anthony Wise said college administrators and faculty must be proactive, rather than reactive, when problems emerge in the classroom, saying: “Students walk out the door because they don’t know where to go for help.”

This semester, Pellissippi State will experiment with a case management system for adult learners that will allow faculty to send early flags when a student needs tutoring, financial aid, counseling or transportation. For example, when Tennessee Reconnect is fully implemented next fall, if an adult student struggles to show up to English class because of child care problems, the professor can use the management system to alert the student success coordinator, who can ask whether the school’s child care grant can help the student find better. The system is designed to catch students before they fall through the cracks once more.

Managing these changes in culture and resources don’t happen overnight, Wise said. There are other retention tools schools can explore to help their students succeed — something as simple as personalized text messages can help, he said. The college tried something similar with Tennessee Promise students, sending messages six times a semester with reminders about academic advising or their declared major. It appeared to improve retention rates among younger populations and will be used in the new Reconnect Now program, he said.

Colleges needs to set up data systems that help faculty, students and staff monitor where a student stands in their progress toward earning a degree, Wise said, while also recruiting and keeping mentors who support students in their path to success. But Wise still finds himself asking: How do you offer this level of attention to 11,000 students, adult learners or not?

“We’re on the path there, but it’s hard to build [these programs] to scale,” he said.

To make sure the program succeeds, the state is weaving support networks beyond college campuses, reaching out to industry and civic leaders and community groups to talk about how towns and cities across Tennessee can support, and benefit from, more college graduates.

But when a student does succeed, “it just changes the trajectory of their lives,” Wise said, and also that of future generations. A college degree can transform how students see themselves and the legacy and expectations for success they pass on to their own children.

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Lara Mechling, 29, stands with her son, Stone, during a game of putt-putt golf in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This summer, Mechling enrolled in Pellissippi State's pilot program that helps adult learners who quit college to complete the degree they started. Photo courtesy of Lara Mechling

Lara Mechling, 29, stands with her son, Stone, during a game of putt-putt golf in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This summer, Mechling enrolled in Pellissippi State’s pilot program that helps adult learners who quit college to complete the degree they started. Photo courtesy of Lara Mechling

Between her newborn son, her part-time job and her classwork, Mechling said she feels overwhelmed if she thinks about everything she needs to do. Instead, she tries to take life one day at a time: “If you sit down and slot your times out, and take it day-by-day and say this is what i can do today, it makes it a lot easier.”

She has compared herself to people who graduated high school with her and are pursuing master’s degrees when she hasn’t yet completed her associate’s degree. She felt as if she steered her life years off-track, but then she realized she is 29 and has “a lot of years left.”

More than anything, she said she hopes when her son is old enough, he will attend college and graduate. When that time comes, Mechling said she wants to tell her son about both her failure and success, remind him that even if he hits bumps along the way to a better education, “Hope is not lost. You can always get there, maybe at a different point in your life.”

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