New free tuition plan spurs another shift for Tennessee colleges

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEAdult students in college face different challenges | 2:04

Adult students in college face different challenges with college schedules and life commitments. Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEState official explains Haslam college plan | 1:11

Mike Krause, the executive director of the state's higher education commission, explains the Tennessee Reconnect scholarship Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEGov. Bill Haslam talks about Tennessee Promise | 1:43

At the end of their first semester of college, Gov. Bill Haslam talks about how the Tennessee Promise students, and the program, are doing. Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEETennessee Promise student Tahj Turnley | 1:16

Tennessee Promise student Tahj Turnley works at a technical college in Spring Hill. Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEGov. Haslam travels the state to celebrate Tn Promise. | 2:07

TN Promise student Kris Tugman thanks Giv. Haslam for being able to go to college.

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEUndocumented students face college without TN Promise | 3:26

Adriana Herrera will graduate from Overton High School in May and she is not sure about college. Because she is an undocumented student, she is not eligible for Tennessee Promise. Samuel M. Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEGeraldine Hernandez plans to participate in Tennessee Promise | 4:24

Geraldine Hernandez hopes to study in the medical field because she like helping people. Samuel Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEJustin Short will use the Tennessee Promise to study criminal justice | 3:09

Justin Short wants to help people and become a police officer. Samuel Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEJonathan Dyer to use Tennessee Promise to become a fireman | 2:28

Jonathan Dyer will use the Tennessee Promise to go to college. Samuel Simpkins / The Tennessean

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TUITION-FREE COMMUNITY COLLEGE IN TENNESSEEVIDEO: Jackson State Community College VP believes in TN Promise | 2:04

Jackson State Community College Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Larry Bailey has high hopes for Tennessee Promise as students from the class of 2015 enter into their first year of higher education in Tennessee. KENNETH CUMMINGS and KATHERINE BURGESS/The Jackson Sun

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  • Adult students in college face different challenges
  • State official explains Haslam college plan
  • Gov. Bill Haslam talks about Tennessee Promise
  • Tennessee Promise student Tahj Turnley
  • Gov. Haslam travels the state to celebrate Tn Promise.
  • Undocumented students face college without TN Promise
  • Geraldine Hernandez plans to participate in Tennessee Promise
  • Justin Short will use the Tennessee Promise to study criminal justice
  • Jonathan Dyer to use Tennessee Promise to become a fireman
  • VIDEO: Jackson State Community College VP believes in TN Promise

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As professor Susan Rockwood, left, looks on, Gaynell Payne, 43, laughs as she learns French with much younger students at Volunteer State Community College. Payne is on track to finish an associate‘s degree in English this year.(Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)Buy Photo

Three years after he transformed the state’s college landscape with Tennessee Promise, Gov. Bill Haslam is poised to change the game again.

During his annual State of the State address Monday night,  by announcing his plan to open community colleges to millions of adult students tuition-free. It‘s a simple idea with an incredibly ambitious goal and far-reaching implications.

College leaders are still digging into the details — most of them heard about it on Monday, around the same time as everyone else. But in a series of interviews, leading education experts agreed it could re-frame campus life in a way similar to Tennessee Promise, which has sent more than 33,000 recent high school graduates to community college tuition-free since 2015.

“It’s an immense opportunity for us,” said Flora Tydings, who oversees the state‘s 13 community colleges as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, a job she started Wednesday. “I could not have asked for a better announcement in my first week coming into the job.”

Tydings said that, as the Reconnect scholarship works its way through the legislature this year, community college leaders will begin expanding services for adult students. More night or weekend classes are on the table, she said, as are “wrap-around services” that might connect adults with child care options.

Although the Reconnect scholarship represents a seismic shift for the state‘s efforts to expand college access, it has the same philosophical DNA as Tennessee Promise. And it is the latest in a long line of attempts to tackle a problem nearly everyone agrees needs fixing: There are not enough working adults in Tennessee with a college degree.

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A grant program launched in 2015 offered any adult Tennessean a chance to go to technical college for free. Another program that started around the same time offered tuition-free community college, too, although that program required adults to come with a significant amount of college credit. Last year the state  to push adults with a significant amount of college credit back into higher education for a degree.

Despite the state‘s continued efforts, the problem has only become more pronounced in the past few years, as a rebounding economy sent adult students returning to the workforce — and away from campus — in droves.

In 2010, when the Great Recession drove Tennessee‘s unemployment levels higher than 10 percent, a surge of older students came to Board of Regents colleges and universities for added training. That fall nearly 40,000 students who were 25 or older enrolled in the college system.

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Buy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam addresses the legislature as he begins to deliver his State of the State in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam gets a standing ovation as he announces the extension of his college tuition plan in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his annual State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart speaks to the crowd outside of the Tennessee state Capitol at the conclusion of the Gov Bill Haslam‘s State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo State Senator Jeff Yarboro speaks to the crowd outside the Tennessee state Capitol at the conclusion of the Gov Bill Haslam‘s State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Tennessee state representatives speak to the crowd outside the Tennessee state Capitol at the conclusion of the Gov Bill Haslam‘s State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters gather outside of the Tennessee state Capitol before the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The Tennessean Buy Photo Republican senator Paul Bailey (right) makes his way through the crowd of protesters at the conclusion of the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters in the Capitol shout as people leave the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters in the capitol shout as people leave the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters in the capitol shout as people leave the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters gather outside the Tennessee state Capitol before the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30. 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters in the capitol gather during the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30. 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters watch a broadcast of the State of the State address at the Tennessee state Capitol Monday, Jan. 30. 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters gather outside of the Tennessee state Capitol before the State of the State address Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Joe Buglewicz / For The TennesseanBuy Photo Legislators applaud the governor‘s state of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Audience members who watched the State of the State speech are blocked on the steps so legislators can exit by the side steps and avoid the main group of protestors in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his annual State of the State speech at the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Legislators applaud the governor‘s annual State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo People in the gallery applaud the governor‘s State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A crowd of protesters greet legislators entering for the State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam chats with members of the legislature before delivering his State of the State address in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A protester shouts at Gov. Bill Haslam as he enters and a security person puts him back in line in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo The legislature applauds as Gov. Bill Haslam begins his State of the State in the state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam shakes hands with Speaker of the House Beth Harwell while Lt. Gov. Randy McNally looks on before the governor delivers the State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo From left, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, Speaker of the House Beth Farwell and Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, listen to the governor‘s State of the State. in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam enters from the side to bypass the protesters but they spot him in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam delivers his State of the State in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Gov. Bill Haslam  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo House Democrats from Nashville, from left, Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, John Ray Clemmons, Jason Powell and Bo Mitchell join the protesters‘ chants in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, join in the protesters‘ chants and shake hands in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo House Democrats join the crowd of protesters and take selfies in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters hold signs in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters hold signs in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, greets protesters in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, and Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis, make their way into the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, takes a selfie with a crowd of protesters in the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A crowd protests President Donald Trump‘s refugee plan at the state Capitol in Nashville on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A protester draped in the state flag watches House proceedings in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo State Rep. Dennis Powers. R-Jacksboro, makes his way through protesters into the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo People hold signs while protesting President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters gather to speak out against the president‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters hold signs against President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters stand in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A crowd protests President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo A crowd protests President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters hold signs against President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo People line up to get into Gov. Bill Haslam‘s State of the State address in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo Protesters hold signs against President Trump‘s refugee plan in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The TennesseanBuy Photo People line up to get into Gov. Bill Haslam‘s State of the State address in the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 30, 2017.  Larry McCormack / The Tennessean

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But those numbers have dropped along with the unemployment rate. In fall 2016, when state unemployment fell to around 5 percent, the same enrollment figure sank to about 20,000 students.

State estimates suggest about 20,000 adult students would use the Reconnect scholarship to enroll in community college every year, starting with the first class in 2018.

Tydings said such an influx would be a boon for community colleges struggling to rebuild their adult enrollment.

“This will enhance what we do,” Tydings said. “It’s not like this is something we’ve never done. It’s just that we’re not doing as much of it right now.”

Different students, different challenges

There are thousands of adult students who already turn to Tennessee‘s community colleges for a lifeline. But their challenges are wholly different from the ones their 18-year-old peers face. And their stories illuminate the reality colleges will have to address if the Reconnect scholarship is to succeed.

Gaynell Payne had wanted to go back to school for decades, but she couldn‘t bring herself to look into it. Every headline about sky-high tuition told her all she needed to know.

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Jaden Payne says a prayer before eating a snack his mother, Gaynell Payne, made for him when they both got home from school. Payne is 43 and has gone back to college after a divorce to further her education. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)

But, she said, a TV commercial showing the governor promoting his suite of college access programs made her reconsider. The 43-year-old single mom did some research. She was stunned by what she found.

“I realized that I qualified all along for financial aid,” she said. “It never occurred to me. There‘s not a lot of information out there. You always hear about how expensive college is instead.”

But cost wasn’t her only hurdle.

Every day became a juggling act. Payne learned to manage her schoolwork at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin and a part-time job writing social media posts at the college along with the responsibilities of raising her 10-year-old son, Jaden.

Sometimes, those worlds collided, as they did Monday, when Payne had to take her sick son along to French class. At home, Payne and Jaden have had to adjust to a new routine that includes homework for both of them.

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After picking him up from school, Gaynell Payne, 43, hugs her 10-year-old son, Jaden, after they both had a long day at school. Payne has returned to college and has had to juggle life as a single mother with her college coursework. (Photo: Larry McCormack / The Tennessean)

Schedules are “always a problem” for adult students, said Kenneth Hanson, the manager of veterans affairs and adult learners at Vol State. Staff try to accommodate that by steering adults toward online and night classes whenever possible. Under the Reconnect scholarship, Hanson said, those offerings would probably need to expand.

One part of the Reconnect proposal that excited Payne and Hanson was that it would require adults to take only two classes per semester. The state‘s previous scholarship program required at least three courses every semester, which many adults found prohibitive.

Payne said that despite the culture shock, and the awkward reality of being older than many of her classmates and some of her professors, college has become a family dream.

When she won a speech contest at Vol State, her son beamed with pride in the audience.

“This changed his whole perspective,” said Payne, who is on track to finish an associate‘s degree in English this year. “Now I feel like I‘m teaching him how to succeed while I‘m learning how to succeed. It‘s a journey that we‘re taking together.”

Hanson said those successes can happen for many adult students, but they need help “making it work with their life.”

Right now, Hanson said, a staff of two full-time employees is helping about 3,000 adults at Vol State with that work. If the Reconnect scholarship grows that number significantly, administrative support would need to grow too, he said.

“It‘s going to take some more effort to be able to put that all together,” Hanson said. “We‘ve got few enough adults (now) that a couple can handle it. Depending on how many numbers we‘re talking about then it may become a bigger issue.”

Reconnect-centered changes are sure to be more pronounced at community colleges facing a potential enrollment spike. But they are even prompting changes at universities, too. Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney McPhee acknowledged that he was considering the impact the state’s push could have on university enrollment.

He drew a parallel with Tennessee Promise, which boosted enrollment at community colleges while most state universities saw dips.

“While that is an element of concern, we’re not panicking, we’re not suggesting that it’s a bad initiative,” McPhee said. “We’re going to find a way to complement it and strengthen what we’re already doing.”

McPhee said he was meeting with senior administrators to discuss ways the university could continue to attract adults who might prefer a university environment. He said the university also would look to develop stronger transfer pathways for adults who do go to community colleges.

Payne, the Vol State student, is looking forward to transferring to a university after her graduation. She hopes the added education will lead to a better life.

“I was basically just qualified to wait tables and that doesn‘t get you anywhere,” she said. “I need to be able to provide for my son.”

Reach Adam Tamburin at atamburin or and on Twitter .

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