Free college not a free ride

Posted 10/10/18

I have volunteered with the United Way for years, and currently serve on the board of directors of the United Way of the Ocoee Region in Southeast Tennessee. Recently, I heard our CEO Matt Ryerson …

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Free college not a free ride

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I have volunteered with the United Way for years, and currently serve on the board of directors of the United Way of the Ocoee Region in Southeast Tennessee.

Recently, I heard our CEO Matt Ryerson give a presentation on the challenges associated with “giveaway” programs that provide temporary relief, versus programs focused more on systemic change. He expressed concern for individuals who routinely take advantage of the free programs.

As an example, he talked about a person who is used to getting a free turkey each year at Thanksgiving now calling  and asking when they can pick up their holiday bird. His point was this person now has an expectation that he will get this free service every year, and one can rightfully wonder what value the person places on this service, as well as their own worth.

Matt also talked about programs such as Habit for Humanity, a program that is dedicated to helping the needy but never giving anything away for free. There are no free houses. Recipients must become qualified, attend training and put in many hours of "sweat equity" before they earn the privilege of paying for their home at a reduced cost.

So, you can imagine how the wheels were spinning in my mind as a community college president who works in a state that leads the nation in providing “free” college education. I have had many questions or comments come my way in recent years questioning the concept of free college.

I also thought of a recent student who received a partial Pell Grant and the last-dollar Tennessee Promise scholarship. The student dropped out the previous semester and received a bill from our college for repayment for a portion of her Pell grant. Our Business Office was talking to her because she had not paid her bill. Her comment was something like, “Why do I need to pay you anything? I was told that college was free.”

If you think this guest commentary is shaping up to be a knock on free college programs you will be disappointed. Sure, there will be some students who won’t appreciate the opportunity they are given, but the purpose of this commentary is to help more students and others see that there are no free rides at “free” colleges in Tennessee.

Let’s talk about what a student has to do before they ever get a penny in Tennessee Promise assistance.

First, a student must apply for Tennessee Promise a full year in advance of starting their college education. Then they each receive a mentor and must attend required meetings during the year. They are also required to complete the FAFSA and attend orientation and registration programs at the college of their choice. Plus, they are required to perform eight hours of community service before they are eligible to start their first semester.

In my experience after three years of the program, students who complete all Tennessee Promise requirements start college with a stronger commitment to be in college. As we all know, this commitment is crucial to success, and early data at my college and across the state show Tennessee Promise students are retaining and completing at a far higher rate than their non-Tennessee Promise counterparts.

So, some sweat equity before they start college is paying off, but it does not stop there. The last-dollar scholarship only covers up to the cost of tuition and certain mandatory fees. We all know what it costs to buy books these days, plus there are other costs such as lab and online fees. For many students, paying for gas and transportation is a significant challenge.

Let’s also consider the sweat equity that our students must contribute to stay in school and be successful. In addition to 15 or so hours of class work each week, we hope they are putting in another 20 to 30 hours of study. For most of our students, this is on top of part-time or full-time employment, not to mention the large percentage of our students who care for families.

Sure, there are some students who say, “Hey it’s free, I’ll give it a try." But in my experience the vast majority see this as a great opportunity, and because of it are willing to put in the sweat equity to succeed. The programs are putting more students in the pipeline and more are completing requirements. 

So, it makes smart public policy to start the Tennessee Reconnect program for adults this fall.  More than 30,000 individuals applied for the program across the state.  At Cleveland State, we saw a 23.5 percent increase in adult students (25 years-plus) enrolled this year over last year.  I know they are excited about the opportunity to put in their own sweat equity.

People value what they work for. Regardless of the cost, college is never a free ride. You earn what you learn.

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(About the writer: A resident of Cleveland, Dr. Bill Seymour serves as president of Cleveland State Community College.)

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