June 19, 2017

WPLN: Now that community and technical colleges are free, what's stopping Tennesseans from enrolling?

By Emily Siner

Helping Tennesseans go to college takes more than giving them free tuition: That's one of the takeaways from a report released Monday by Complete Tennessee, a nonprofit that tracks higher education in the state.

The organization traveled to nine different regions to talk to groups involved with higher education. Its final report dissects barriers around Tennessee that seem to be stopping people from enrolling in higher education, even after the state has started waiving tuition for most students at community and technical colleges.

"One would think [that] with tuition barriers being significantly reduced at least for our community colleges and technical colleges, access would not be an issue," says Kenyatta Lovett, executive director of Complete Tennessee. 

But in every region around the state, he says, "we found that citizens believe that there were some difficulties for students to go to college and complete."

For example, in Southern Middle Tennessee — mostly rural counties between Nashville and the Alabama line — transportation and internet access are major issues. (It doesn't matter if students can afford community college if they don't have a car to drive there or can't access online courses, the report notes.) 

Meanwhile, the regions surrounding Nashville and Chattanooga have a different hurdle: The job markets there are so strong that the incentive to go to college is lower, because potential students have plenty of opportunities without getting a higher degree or certificate.

"From a student's perspective, making $18 an hour, that's a really big deal," Lovett says. "But longterm, that's not in the best interest of the student, the employer or the community, because they will be ill-equipped to be successful in the future."

Lovett says that some training programs in northeast Tennessee have tried to encourage employers to only hire students after they earn their degree or certificate.

This independent report is meant to critique and ultimately push forward the governor's college completion agenda. The goal is for 55 percent of adults in the state to have a higher education credential by 2025.