Colorado Northwestern Community College nursing students Jade Prophet, left, and Cami Gardetto, work in the school’s simulation lab Jan. 15 at the Craig campus. Matt Stensland / Chalkbeat

What we can learn from Tennessee’s free college plan

This item appeared in Beyond High School, a Chalkbeat newsletter by Jason Gonzales about college-going in Colorado. Sign up for your own copy here.


Hi all. Welcome back to the Beyond High School newsletter.

When President Joe Biden announced his plan for free community college nationwide, my mind immediately went to Tennessee, where I worked for five years. My colleague Adam Tamburin and I worked together to dissect the impact of the nation’s first statewide free college program.

Tennessee Promise, as it’s called, has pushed more of the Volunteer State’s students into the college system and led to modest increases in college graduation rates.

But we also saw where free has its shortcomings. Too many of the state’s students of color and those from low-income backgrounds weren’t — and still aren’t — graduating. Tennessee leaders are working to improve the program for all students.

Local community college presidents, especially, have been tasked with meeting the needs of even more students who face challenges with food and housing or who are juggling jobs and family responsibilities.

To understand what Biden’s plan would do for the nation, I caught up with tnAchieves Executive Director Chrissy DeAlejandro, the leader of a nonprofit that supports Tennessee’s college goals and an architect of the promise program. She was in the room when the idea was drawn up on a whiteboard as just a Knoxville initiative. The lessons she’s learned can help Colorado and other states. Here’s what she had to say.

On the power of ‘free’ — and its limits

Walking into a crowded high school cafeteria and telling students that two-year college is free changes lives, DeAlejandro said.

But as a first-generation college student, she understands how intimidating the college experience can be. Students need help navigating the enrollment process, but also how to balance work, home life, and school, she said.

First generation and low-income students, especially, require so much more help than someone whose family has already attended college or who is middle- or high-income, she said.

“Promise provided that shock, but once we landed there, we asked, what we are doing differently to support these students?” DeAlejandro said. “I think that’s the lesson that we’re continuing to learn and evaluate.”

On what students need

Through a partnership with tnAchieves, Tennessee offers significant student support services. That’s the magic behind the program, DeAlejandro said.

Volunteer mentors help students navigate the college application process. The nonprofit also offers academic and career advising, as well as coaching and intervention when a student struggles.

The coaching initiative has helped many of the state’s most vulnerable students stay in school and graduate college, DeAlejandro said. Figuring out how to serve students must be top of mind for any national program, she said.

“We wake up every day and think about this specific cohort and how we are going to get them to the finish line,” she said.

On free college growing into a national movement

DeAlejandro said thinking about her own beginnings and the beginnings of Tennessee Promise in light of the recent Biden announcement feels humbling. She’s excited to see where free college evolves in the future, especially when it opens up access to millions of Americans.

“I believe in the power of higher education. I think it breaks vicious family cycles and I believe that it becomes a game changer in terms of ending generational poverty,” she said. “And I love that this is no longer about the elite point of view, but instead on how we can support our most at-risk students so that they can lead more productive lives.”

If you haven’t read it yet, check out what Biden’s free community college plan might mean to Colorado.

Have any thoughts on free college? Please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you. And tell me what higher ed stories aren’t getting enough attention in the state. Reach me on Twitter at @ByJasonGonzales or via email at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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