Next up for college programs in Tennessee as Gov. Bill Haslam leaves office: Think smaller

After years of sweeping statewide initiatives that brought thousands of students to college, officials in Tennessee seem poised change their approach.

Their new strategy is to think smaller.

The next generation of programs generally seek to tie college efforts back to individual communities, either through hyper-local initiatives or state-based work that zeros in on the distinct needs of students, which can change by the ZIP code.

The state's highest profile college boosters insist it won't be a retreat from the landmark work done during Gov. Bill Haslam's tenure, which is coming to an end in January. Instead, they said, it would reflect a natural evolution as communities tailor efforts to fit the needs of smaller subgroups across the state.

Haslam launched Tennessee Promise in 2014, offering tuition-free community and technical college to virtually every high school senior in the state. A few years later, Tennessee Reconnect expanded the offer to most of the state's adults.

Adding more complementary local programming now could increase the durability of Haslam's statewide college efforts after their champion leaves office.

For many, the local focus is seen as a return to form.

Tennessee Promise grew out of a Knox County program that launched when Haslam was mayor of Knoxville.

"It was a local community diving into the specific needs of its students," said Krissy DeAlejandro, leader of the nonprofit tnAchieves that has shepherded the scholarship program from its earliest days. "We've brought it back full circle.

"To be sustainable it truly needs to be a home-grown initiative."

Nashville came to the table with 'home-run idea,' Haslam said

Officials say Nashville is leading the charge on this front, with a new proposal announced this month to fill in some of the financial gaps Tennessee Promise and Reconnect don't address.

Promise and Reconnect take care of tuition, but students are on their own on textbooks, transportation and other living expenses. Often, the rush to address something as small as a flat tire or a late electric bill can be enough to derail a low-income student's college career indefinitely.

The Nashville GRAD proposal would use millions of dollars in city money to troubleshoot and pay expenses that threaten to pull students away from campus before graduation.

The idea builds on similar programs at the City University of New York and Georgia State University.

Securing the added funding at the local level could in some cities prove easier than passing an expensive statewide equivalent through the Tennessee General Assembly. And, brokered at the local level, it can be deployed to meet the unique needs at Nashville State Community College.

“Nashville GRAD really complements the work of Tennessee Promise and Reconnect," said Indira Dammu, an education policy adviser in Mayor David Briley's office. “We’re making sure that we’re meeting the needs of all students."

Haslam himself praised the GRAD program as a "home-run idea" that should serve as a model for the future.

During a public conversation hosted by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee on Monday, Haslam said other cities could adapt the GRAD idea for their own students.

"That might look really different in Carthage or in Milan or in Johnson City, but I hope each local community figures out, 'What works for us?'" Haslam said.

Local efforts already underway in Memphis, elsewhere

Most of the new work from state higher education leaders is skewing local as well.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission already launched separate grant programs based on the needs in 19 economically distressed counties. And officials are using data to pinpoint challenges that pull specific subgroups, like black students, out of college at disproportionately higher rates.

DeAlejandro, the tnAchieves director, has continued to pilot new programs based on local needs. In Memphis, a substantial drop-off in Tennessee Promise interest during the summer triggered more intensive wave of summertime programming for especially vulnerable students.

DeAlejandro's team invited students from a handful of schools in the Whitehaven area, where the drop-off was particularly pronounced. For 10 weeks, the students went through coursework and tutoring meant to serve as a runway into Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Meals and transportation were provided.

And it worked. The students left with college credit and were much more likely to show up in the fall.

"Not only could we catch them up, but we also could provide them with a foundation where they were ahead," DeAlejandro said.

Now the nonprofit is bringing the model to three high schools in Knoxville where the data showed similar trends. If it works there, further expansion is possible, with an eye toward specific high schools where students are experiencing the most trouble.

DeAlejandro said that kind of local experimentation would continue. It was part of the Tennessee Promise DNA, she said.

"We can be incredibly successful at scale if we are targeted in approach," she said.

Partnerships becoming hallmark of free college programs nationwide

More than 300 Promise programs have been established across the country. Tennessee's was the first to take the premise statewide, and several other states have followed suit.

As the model has grown, a trend has emerged, said Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign: Collaboration across different levels of government is happening "much more explicitly."

The teamwork is fueled by a common goal that is too complex for any one entity to tackle alone. People in many places are not trained adequately for a rapidly evolving workforce.

Kanter said leaders across sectors have concluded education is the key to solving that problem.

That was Haslam's primary argument when he pushed Tennessee Promise and Reconnect through a conservative legislature. The same approach works in cities, counties and states across the ideological spectrum, Kanter said.

Kanter predicted "new forms of collaboration between government officials at the city and county level and at the state level" as the work continued.

"You've got people at the table talking to each other and also looking at data," Kanter said. "They're all wanting to have better educated people and a better prepared workforce."

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, Tennessean by Adam Tamburin

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Published December 13, 2018