Next goal for Haslam: Put more adults in college

As Tennessee Promise reaches the end of its first full year, Gov. Bill Haslam is turning toward a new college challenge that he said would be even more complicated.

In January the state will launch an advertising campaign and publicity tour to promote the Reconnect and Complete initiative to attract adults onto college campuses. It’s another part of the governor’s Drive to 55, a suite of 12 programs — including Tennessee Promise — that aim to enroll more Tennesseans in higher education.

The new Reconnect and Complete program will seek to reach out to 110,000 Tennesseans between the ages of 25 and 64 who have dropped out of college since 2007, when they were more than halfway toward a degree. Through a $1 million advertising blitz featuring billboards along the interstate and commercials on TV and radio, the state will encourage those adults to finish.

College representatives met in September to strategize and collect contact information for former students who are only a handful of credits away from graduation.

During that meeting, college representatives got added training on the best ways to work with adult students, who often must balance families and jobs with their education. Each state college also has put a staffer in charge of overseeing outreach to adults.

College outreach to high school students has followed a relatively simple model under Tennessee Promise, focusing on high school visits and buy-in from guidance counselors to promote the scholarship program. Reaching out to adults is more difficult because there isn’t a similar central place to reach all of them.

“That feels like the next challenge,” Haslam said this month during an exclusive interview in his office.

The state already has made several efforts to reach out to adults under the Reconnect umbrella.

The Tennessee Reconnect grant gives eligible adults the chance to study at a technical college without paying tuition. And the state in October announced that Middle Tennessee and two other regions would get $200,000 Reconnect community grants to create community centers for adults who want to go back to college. In Middle Tennessee, the community center will be a hub for three full-time “college coaches” who will provide adults with free advising, career counseling and financial aid resources.

The multifaceted approach reflects the specific challenges for adult students, and the fact that the state doesn’t have a singular strategy to reach them. Haslam acknowledged that his team was approaching the varied Reconnect efforts with a trial-and-error mentality.

“How do we get that 40-year-old single mother of two back to school?” Haslam wondered aloud. “We don’t have that problem solved yet because that’s a lot more difficult, but I think you’ll see us turning our focus to that in the next couple of years.”

Promise expands its reach

Haslam and his team may be turning their focus toward adult students, but they are pointing efforts to children, too. Outreach workers will fan out across the state in the spring to talk to middle school students about the Tennessee Promise program, which offers them the chance to attend a community or technical college tuition-free after high school graduation.

That could be a pivotal expansion because research shows that the earlier students start to think about college, the more successful they are.

“There are so many students that are already counting themselves out of college when they’re in high school or in middle school,” said Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise and the Drive to 55. “To give them a direction to walk and a light to walk toward, that makes a difference in their daily decisions as a student.”

Krause added that the state’s programs targeting adult students would make it easier for students such as Geraldine Hernandez, who dropped out of Tennessee Promise earlier this year after problems verifying her Free Application for Federal Student Aid by the scholarship program’s deadline.

Students like Hernandez “didn’t enter (college) right at that moment. That doesn’t mean that they can’t immediately pivot and come back,” Krause said. “Those doors are never closed, and there’s not another state in America that is a better place to be an adult going back to college now.

“I wish Geraldine would have enrolled right away, but the second she or any other student is ready, though, they’re going to find those campuses have adjusted.”

Different programs, same goal

Haslam said Tennessee Promise and the Reconnect efforts fit together as part of the vision he laid out during his first inaugural address in 2011.

“To me this is all part of this one vision to have Tennessee change its expectations about who we are,” he said. “We haven’t always seen ourselves as a state that excelled academically. I think we can change that.”

Haslam has long touted the Drive to 55 as an effort to produce a workforce able to attract more employers to Tennessee. But he acknowledged that, if the plan does put more Tennesseans through college, it could impact several aspects of life in the state.

Research has shown, for instance, that adults who have a college education are typically healthier. And access to higher education has a proven impact on income. Haslam said throwing college doors open to more Tennesseans could shrink the gap between the richest and poorest in the state.

“For too long, I think Tennesseans have expected too little of ourselves,” Haslam said. “Our goal is to aim higher, and a big part of aiming higher is saying I want to go to school beyond high school.”

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


Drive to 55 programs

• Tennessee Promise program to send high school graduates to community and technical colleges tuition-free.
• Tennessee Reconnect supports to help adults enroll in college.
• Reconnect and Complete effort to encourage adults to complete their degrees.
• Community college scholarship pilot for adults.
• SAILS efforts to get students remedial help in high schools.
• College success course pilots to help some high school students plan for higher education.
• Tennessee Promise Summer Bridge program to help first-generation students prepare for college.
• TN College Advisor website linking parents and students with an array of information on colleges.
• Degree Compass program that uses data to match students with courses of study that they are most likely to succeed in.
• Massive Open Online Courses that allow some college students and other Tennesseans to take classes on the Internet.
• Efforts to encourage veterans to enroll in college in Tennessee.
• Labor Education Alignment Program grants to bankroll new programs aiming to help colleges train workers.

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