Colleges work now so TN Promise students succeed later

635679093322780961-NAS-TN-PROMISE-MAY-01Adam Tamburin , The Tennessean

Tennessee Promise is bringing changes to every corner of the state.

Volunteer State Community College in Sumner County is hiring four “completion advisers,” a new role that will help more students leave campus with a degree in two years, administrators say.

Dyersburg State Community College was one of many schools to host job fairs this year, recruiting a pool of adjunct professors to tackle swelling course rosters.

Roane State Community College in East Tennessee invited a swarm of high school graduates to clear rocks and spread mulch in its community garden to help fulfill the eight-hour service requirement for Tennessee Promise’s scholarship program.

As 66,000 students graduate from high schools around the state, Tennessee Promise is graduating as well.

In April, 31,000 high school seniors were still eligible for the program, which offers them community college tuition-free. Early projections suggest as many as 18,000 of those students could continue with the program this fall, about 6,000 of whom would not have gone to college without the scholarship.

“This summer represents a really important transition for Tennessee Promise,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the program. “It’s been conceptual for a while, and it’s about to be very concrete.”

Tennessee Promise’s freshman year will be watched closely by parents and educators across the state, and by a high-profile cheerleader in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama visited Knoxville in January to celebrate Gov. Bill Haslam’s pioneering program.

Its success this fall depends largely on the work that is underway at the state’s 13 public community colleges, where most of the eligible students will enroll. Colleges and state leaders are in the midst of laying groundwork for the students’ arrival, from added staffing to special events.

While many of the changes vary by campus, some of the most crucial efforts are statewide, including an overhaul of remedial education and a robust redesign of the traditional orientation process. The leaders hope those changes will be enough to get the students onto campus and keep them there long enough to get a degree.

First, high school graduation

While administrators across the state await the next phase of Tennessee Promise with a mix of anticipation and angst, students such as Geraldine Hernandez are still celebrating the end of high school.

Last Sunday, the Glencliff High School senior pulled her graduation gown out of its wrapping and carefully draped it over a new white dress.

“It’s almost time to grow up, people,” one teacher said as he walked along the line of students frantically adjusting their caps and pumping their fists in the air in celebration.

Moments later, with a wide smile, Hernandez walked across the stage and into the unknown.

The stress of what comes next is already weighing on her. She is in the midst of verifying the information in her Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a process, she said, that has brought her to tears.

“OK, so this is how it feels to grow up,” she said. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”

New model for remediation

Tennessee Promise was designed to target students like Hernandez who will be the first in their families to pursue higher education. Those students stand to benefit most from a college degree, but they also are more likely to hit roadblocks along the way.

Multiple studies have shown that first-generation college students are much more likely than their peers to enter college without being academically prepared. In the past, those students have been required to take remedial classes before they could begin college work.

For instance, a student who entered Nashville State Community College without college-level math skills would have to take a remedial algebra class before he or she was allowed to take statistics. Both classes would cost the same, but the student would get college credit only for the statistics course.

Data kept by the Tennessee Board of Regents, which governs the state’s 13 community colleges, show this model discourages the vast majority of students and ultimately drives them away from higher education. Only 12.6 percent of community college students who take remedial classes leave with a degree or certificate within three years.

To improve chances for students arriving on campus this fall, TBR is eliminating that remedial model and replacing it with a statewide corequisite system that wraps remedial services around a credit-bearing course.

“What the corequesite model will allow us to do is basically do it all at once,” said Sarah Roberts, dean of math and natural sciences at Nashville State.

Now students will enroll simultaneously in statistics and a math workshop that includes added tutoring and support built around their college coursework.

Georgia, Indiana and West Virginia are using a version of the same model. While corequisite has become a popular rallying point for college access advocates, there aren’t many long-term studies on its efficacy.

“As increasing numbers of institutions, districts and states move toward a corequisite model, we see descriptive evidence that these courses increase the overall number of college-level courses that students complete,” Angela Boatman, a professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, said in an email.

“Questions remain, however, as to how this model impacts the long-term success for the entire range of students who are assessed below college ready.”

Pilot programs in Tennessee suggest that the corequisite model could be successful here. A pilot involving almost 1,000 students at nine community colleges last year helped pushed the pass rate of freshman math from about 10 percent to 62 percent and freshman writing from 30 percent to 74 percent.

An opportunity and a challenge

Expanding corequisite pilots across the entire community college system would be a major undertaking during any academic year. The fact that the statewide rollout will coincide with the arrival of thousands of Tennessee Promise students only serves to heighten the stakes.

Administrators across the community college system insist they are ready. Many colleges began preparing for the rollout before Tennessee Promise was introduced.

George Pimentel, vice president for academic affairs at Vol State, said the timing of the rollout could be beneficial for Tennessee Promise students, who are statistically more likely to benefit from the support.

Vol State stands to gain as many as 800 new students through Tennessee Promise, although the exact number will remain unknown until students begin classes in August. Pimentel is working to hire four new math instructors and four new English instructors, and has a pool of adjunct professors ready if demand is higher than expected.

Community colleges across the country saw their enrollments peak during the Great Recession. Administrators say that experience proves they have the capacity to teach new Tennessee Promise students.

But juggling an influx of Tennessee Promise students along with a relatively new initiative presents a challenge.

“In a perfect world, I wish we would’ve gotten the opportunity to run the (corequisite model) for at least one good, solid semester first,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel is working with his staff to plan for a wide range of hypothetical scenarios, from expanding class offerings to hiring additional adjunct professors.

“I’ll feel better after the fall because I’ll have a general sense of things we need to tweak,” he said. “This will be a nervous summer, I’ll tell you.”

Challenges beyond academics

Academic support is only one challenge facing the first wave of Tennessee Promise students. For some of them — especially those who will be first-generation college students — even stepping foot on campus will be a struggle.

To help ease the intimidation factor, Promise students will be able to participate in the Tennessee Promise Bridge Program, which will bring them to campus for three weeks this summer for orientation, advising and early instruction. Haslam included $400,000 in his budget to pay for the program this year.

Ronald Davis, vice president of academic affairs and student services at Nashville State, said the Bridge Program, combined with existing orientation programs, would offer a “summer warmup for what’s going to be taking place this fall.”

“Education’s not just about taking classes,” Davis said. “It’s about learning the dynamics of the college.”

The state is offering seven grants of about $75,000 to help community colleges offer added support — from a system that sends text alerts for students who miss class to additional advisers. Nine of the 13 community colleges applied.

“You would be hard pressed to find another state that has this many student-focused initiatives going on all at once,” Krause said. “Obviously these students’ success is at the core of everything we’ve done this year.”

Roberts, the Nashville State dean, said her college would have the classrooms and instructors for however many students arrive this fall.

“Then the question becomes, do those students stay?” she said.

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

About the project

This is the fifth installment in The Tennessean’s yearlong series on Tennessee Promise, the state’s ambitious plan to provide community college tuition-free to eligible high school graduates. On the fourth Sunday of every month, The Tennessean will provide an in-depth look at the program’s progress and its impact.

Catching up with The Tennessean’s five students

In February The Tennessean introduced five students who will be featured throughout the year as they make their way through the Tennessee Promise program. Here’s what they’ve been up to lately.

Sabrina Cornejo (Gallatin) married her fiance at her grandparents’ house under a Southern magnolia tree. She graduated from Sumner County’s online high school earlier the same day. She has already selected her first semester of classes at Volunteer State Community College and looks forward to starting in the fall.

Jonathan Dyer (Bartlett, a suburb of Memphis) attended his orientation session at Southwest Tennessee Community College on Friday. Over the summer, he plans to turn his side job as a photographer into a small business. He has a number of clients lined up, including his sister, who gets married in June.

Geraldine Hernandez (Nashville) is still trying to figure out how to fill all of her time now that she’s done with senior year, and with several after-school activities. She plans to start a summer internship soon.

Justin Short (Kingsport) bought a car using some of the money he saved from his full-time job. He’s looking forward to starting classes in August at Northeast State Community College.

Tahj Turnley (Brentwood) won a leadership award at his graduation from Benton Hall Academy. He wants to dive head first into his next step, so he’s set to begin his work at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Hohenwald in July.

Who is still eligible

In April, more than 31,000 students were still eligible for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, but experts expect that number to drop significantly by the fall. Many students probably will leave the program to attend a four-year university or pursue other options.

To remain eligible, students still need to clear two more hurdles this summer. Students who are required to verify their Free Application for Federal Student Aid must do so by June 15. And all students will need to finish eight hours of community service by Aug. 1.

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