Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean
Justin Short couldn’t sleep.
After 3 a.m. on Aug. 24, a few hours before the Kingsport teenager started classes at Northeast State Community College, he hopped into his SUV and drove to Walmart in search of last-minute supplies and a distraction from the pit in his stomach.
A month later, those nerves have faded, replaced by the steady drumbeat of stress familiar to anyone who’s ever pulled an all-nighter.
For Short, and thousands of others heading to college tuition-free with the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, college is no longer a far-off dream. It’s a reality.
That comes with its own set of triumphs and challenges, for freshmen like Short and for the colleges themselves.
He spent $403 on books — a sum he’d like to see shrink moving forward. And he wishes he had smaller classes that would clear the way for more one-on-one time with professors.
“They need to find ways to meet everybody’s learning style,” he said. “Because people are going to drop out.”
There is no doubt that Tennessee Promise has led to swelling rosters at community and technical colleges, where most eligible students are using the scholarship. Gov. Bill Haslam’s office announced this week that about 15,800 students are enrolled in school through the scholarship program; that number is on the lower end of the latest Tennessee Promise estimates but well above the initial projection of 12,000.
And there are signs that many of them might not have gone to college otherwise. The number of full-time students coming straight from high school to one of the state’s 13 community colleges jumped 14 percent this year.
Parking lots at many community and technical colleges have overflowed since the first day of school, leaving students and professors parking on the grass. At Motlow State Community College’s Smyrna campus, where full-time enrollment is up 60 percent, officials had to hire security guards to help direct parking lot traffic jams.
Motlow President Tony Kinkel said that even though the school hired 44 additional adjunct professors and three full-time professors to teach a “tidal wave” of students, class sizes still were swelling to their breaking point. The student-teacher ratio at Motlow last year was 21:1, but this year Kinkel said it had jumped to 25:1.
Kinkel, who started at Motlow this summer, said he hoped to hire more adjuncts next semester. He acknowledged that community college students typically need closer attention to succeed.
“We’re pushing our outer limits of what we specialize in at a community college,” he said. “We’ve got to rise to that challenge, but it is requiring more resources.”
Those resources extend outside of the classroom. Motlow is one of several colleges, like Southeast Tennessee Community College and Volunteer State Community College, to add specialized completion advisers, or coaches, to the payroll this year.
The new advisers talk to students about academics, but they talk in a more holistic way about students’ college career — from covering the cost of textbooks to balancing school with a full- or part-time job. For a crop of students who might not have considered college a possibility a year ago, the added support could be critical.
“All of these challenges are good challenges to have,” Kinkel said. “That’s why you have community college.”
Beyond the bigger crowds in classrooms and parking lots, officials agree the arrival of Tennessee Promise students has changed — or improved — the mood on campus.
For one thing, they’re much younger than typical community or technical college students.
Mark Hutton, an adjunct professor who teaches Short’s remedial English class at Northeast State’s Kingsport campus, said last year’s students averaged in their late 20s. But many of the freshmen using Tennessee Promise are still 18, and used to high school routines.
Students are more likely, for instance, to raise their hands to ask for permission to use the restroom.
A recent class meeting mirrored the loose energy of a high school. Short and his friends, many of whom were classmates at Dobyns-Bennett, were smiling and chatty as they filed in to their seats.
But the tone of the room shifted when Hutton said it was time to begin a quiz on subjects and predicates. Short’s eyes narrowed as he focused on his computer screen.
Hutton said Tennessee Promise students were more comfortable in the classroom than those he’s taught before.
“By this time last semester, a lot of the students had checked out,” Hutton said.
But he’s noticed a difference this year.
“I think it’s given more students the opportunity to pursue an education, so they don’t have to wait,” he said. “They’re used to it. They didn’t have a break.”
Still ‘so glad’
Short might be stressed, but he happily stands by his decision to follow through with Tennessee Promise. His mother, who never graduated high school, often reminds him it is the clearest path to a better financial future.
State data released this year support her assertion.
An analysis by the governor’s office found that high school graduates who went straight into the workforce without college in 2010 had an average annual income of $9,030 by 2014 and only a 16 percent chance of earning more than minimum wage. That income is less than half the state average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Short, who is the first person in his family to even attend a college class, sees the stakes every day. He has watched relatives and friends hit dead ends without a degree.
“I’m so glad I went to college. So glad,” Short said. “I’m going to college, I’m getting a degree. I’m going to get my hind end a job and I’m going to make something of myself.”
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
This is the ninth installment in a year-long series on Tennessee Promise, the state’s plan to provide community college tuition-free to high school graduates. On the fourth Sunday of every month, The Tennessean will look at the program’s progress and its impact.
BY THE NUMBERS
State officials said this week that about 15,800 students were enrolled in college under the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. The lion’s share of those students are using the scholarship to go to a community or technical college without tuition, but some are using it to get a discounted rate toward an associate’s degree at a four-year school. Here are the tallies of students using the Tennessee Promise at schools that serve Middle Tennessee.
Volunteer State Community College: 1,518
Motlow State Community College: 1,304
Nashville State Community College: 1,233
Columbia State Community College: 1,080
*Austin Peay State University: 538
Tennessee College of Applied Technology Nashville: 108
TCAT Dickson: 77
*Cumberland University: 68
Source: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office