The cost of free community college

The administrative team at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, TN, recently got a crash-course in the benefits and pitfalls of “free” community college.

The Tennessee Promise program provides students a “last-dollar scholarship,” meaning it covers tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, HOPE scholarship, or state assistance funds, at all of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institutions offering an associate’s degree program.

While it improves access to higher education and is a dream fulfilled for many students and professionals in higher education, implementation of the program wasn’t without challenges at Volunteer State Community College, where freshman enrollment nearly doubled from fall 2014 to fall 2015.

Growing by leaps and bounds

“We’re still winging it,” said Tim Amyx, Director of Admissions and Registrar. “The buzz about free community college—add water, instant growth—hasn’t been quite that easy. It’s a really good thing, but we’re also a bit of a cautionary tale for other states picking up the idea.”

Amyx and his colleagues want to help other institutions—specifically community colleges, but also four-year schools that will be affected by this kind of policy change—prepare in case this kind of program is rolled out in other states or on a national level.  “Four year schools in our area saw an enrollment decline,” Amyx said. “So those institutions might need to think about how to reform their relationships with community colleges where their transfers come from, if a program like this is implemented in their state.”

Six questions answered on the fly

“It’s important to know what to expect,” Amyx said. If the administration had known last year what they know now, they could have handled the roll-out in a much more pro-active manner.

For example, institutions should consider:

  • Do we have enough faculty and advising staff? “We expanded very rapidly in the fall,” said George Pimentel, Vice President for Academic Affairs. “As enrollment was coming in we were hiring people one right after another for a six-week period. We’d add a section on the fly and then figure out who was going to teach it. We’d hired new counselors but they weren’t well-trained by the time the students showed up,” Short added.
  • Do we need to restructure pathway requirements? “From a curriculum standpoint, we had default pathways that required all incoming freshmen to take certain classes,” Pimentel said. “But it’s not necessary for all students to take Communications in their first semester—it can be pushed back to the second or third. We have now tweaked the requirements to prevent those bottlenecks.”
  • Do we have the student services in place that we need? “We ended up with a higher yield rate for new student orientation and had to improve the services in the middle,” said Emily
  • Are the facilities able to handle the capacity? “We had more than twice the number expected at orientation—we had to redirect traffic so cars could get through,” said Emily. “Knowing what we know now, we probably would have started orientation earlier—and we’ve changed that for the coming year.”
  • How are we communicating with parents and families? “Not everyone understood the order of aid—that the Promise came after Pell and other grants were administered,” Emily said. “And they didn’t realize that books and supplies weren’t covered and so on. We’ve made changes in how we handle that information and communication.”
  • How is campus culture going to change? With the influx of this cohort of students—first-time, full-time freshman—the look and feel of campus changed dramatically. This population had a very specific idea about what going to college looked like. “They came with an expectation—we had hammocks on the quad, which was new for us,” Amyx said. “They didn’t just come to go to class, they came to stay all day.”

“Last summer felt like a continuous carnival,” said Emily Short, Assistant Vice President for Student Services. “But those of us who had been here for a long time realized we hadn’t seen that level of teamwork among student services, academic affairs, plant operations—all the different campus entities. We really had to pull together just to handle that volume of students. It really did ‘take a village’—it took the whole campus, every single person, to handle the transition.”

“Although this is a bit of a cautionary tale, people shouldn’t be concerned it’s going to happen at their schools—they should hope it will,” Amyx added. “This has been a good thing—a great thing—for the state of Tennessee.”

Pimentel, Short, and Amyx will discuss this topic in greater depth at their session “The Cost of Free Community College” at the 2016 AACRAO Annual Meeting, March 20-23 in Phoenix, AZ. For more information and to register for the meeting, visit the AACRAO Annual Meeting website.

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