Does free community college work?

Obama announces free college plan
Obama announces free college plan

When it comes to free education, Tennessee leads the way.

And it's where President Obama chose to announce an ambitious proposal for free community college education on Friday.

Dubbed "America's College Promise," Obama's proposal would provide two years of community college or trade school to students who maintain a 2.5 GPA, attend at least part-time and "make steady progress" toward degree completion.

Commonly referred to as junior colleges or technical schools, community colleges are two-year institutions that offer flexibility for students, many of whom are lower income or are the first in their families to attend college.

This is the case with the majority of those who've taken advantage of Tennessee's program.

"Tennessee Promise" will welcome its first class of students this fall, but many in the state have already benefited from free community college thanks to tnAchieves.

The Knoxville-based nonprofit has been facilitating free community college and mentorship since 2008. To date, roughly 14,000 students in 27 counties have successfully started community college free of cost in Tennessee. (Completion rates were not immediately available.)

"We've never turned away a student," said Graham Thomas, director of community partnerships at tnAchieves, which raises money from large state employers or wealthy individuals. Through 2013, the program had awarded $7.8 million in scholarship.

Thomas said 65% of their students are the first in their families to attend college and 70% are from low-income families. The retention rate is also about 40% higher than the state average.

These are people who wouldn't have the means -- and might not know the ropes -- of getting a college degree.

The success of tnAchieves helped a statewide program pass in 2014. (TN Achieves will continue to work with the state to facilitate the program.) Tennessee Promise requires students to maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA, have a mentor and perform eight hours of community service per term. Students must cover textbook costs, but tuition is free for the first two years of community college.

The response to the statewide program has been overwhelming: 57,000 students applied for 2015 (nearly 90% of the state's high school graduating class).

"In places like Tennessee, we're seeing incredible strides as a consequence of these efforts," Obama said in his address at Knoxville's Pellissippi State Community College. "Over the past few years, Tennessee students have improved their reading scores and math scores more than any other state in the country. ... Every Tennessean should be proud of that."

But if President Obama wants to replicate Tennessee's efforts on a federal level, he first needs the support of Congress, which many say will be near impossible with a Republican majority in both the House and Senate.

Secondly, Thomas stressed, the program would need to offer much more than just tuition costs. He said the mentorship aspect is integral to the program's effectiveness.

"Many of them do need that extra support," said Thomas. tnAchieves has about 7,500 volunteers who support five to ten students.

Mentors -- like Emma Supica of Nashville -- make a big difference.

Supica, 27, said she emails, calls, and Facebook messages the six students she works with.

"I'm their form-filling babysitter," she said. "I stay on them to fill out their FAFSA on time. It's very much like being a high school guidance counselor."

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