College costs too much. That’s why we should support all reasonable attempts to make it more accessible and affordable.   The Tennessee legislature recently passed (and the Governor signed) a bill creating “The Tennessee Promise” making two years of community college free for all the state’s high school graduates. Similar bills are being considered elsewhere. I applaud all efforts that affirm higher education as a “public good” rather than a “personal benefit.”

President Obama’s 2020 goal of returning the United States to first in the world in terms of college completion is predicated on increasing access, making higher education more affordable and ensuring that students graduate. While getting into college is easy, the hard part is getting out.

Proposals such as the Tennessee Promise may increase access but do little to help students succeed in school. The Promise is a “last dollar” program that kicks in only after needy students have drawn on other public resources such as Pell Grants. By some accounts, more than half of Tennessee community college students already attend college tuition-free. Helping enroll more students by making it free for everyone does not address the reasons why students fail to graduate. Increasing the number of students could exacerbate the problem by further straining the resources and capacity of these institutions to provide the support services that improve retention and graduation rates.

Community colleges graduation rates are already significantly lower than for four-year institutions. If the Promise redirects high school students away from 4-year institutions, statistically, they are less likely to graduate from college.

We know the factors that promote student success. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education brought together a group of experts to review the research findings on college completion. Their conclusions were published in a USDE document called Evidence Meets Practice.

When academic advisors initiate contact with students, offer counseling beyond scheduling and academic goals, and help students think through life situations, the latter are more likely to graduate. When universities integrate advising with coaching, assign the best teachers to gatekeeper and developmental courses, help students develop academic plans and monitor progress on a regular basis, students are more likely to stay in school and complete their programs. When faculty members engage students in research, community service and other activities, this further increases the likelihood that the latter will succeed.   These are all labor-intensive activities, done best by fulltime faculty with whom students have built ongoing relationships and will be around from semester to semester.

Nationally, however, adjuncts teach 58% of the community college classes and 53% of the students according to a recent study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (Contingent commitments: Bringing part- time faculty into focus (A special report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Program in Higher Education Leadership, 2014).

Clearly, there are many excellent adjunct/contingent faculty who know their material, like students, love teaching and excel in classrooms around the country. Generally, they are also poorly paid and badly supported. Advising is generally not considered part of their ongoing roles and responsibilities, particularly in view of their heavy course loads and lack of continuity in a particular institution.   The Promise hopes to mobilize unpaid volunteers to help tutor students but that’s very different than the ongoing relationship that students build with their professors—a significant factor in increasing student success.

Offering free college tuition makes for great politics. I would be more hopeful if The Promise also increased Tennessee community colleges’ investment in those activities that actually increase student success. The number of students who complete their programs successfully is a better metric than how many initially enroll in college.

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