How Mentors and Scholarships Help Community College Students Succeed

 (Flickr/Brendan Rankin)

High school senior Sarah Goins of Louisville, Tennessee, drove in her first drag race at age 7 in a smaller version of a drag car called a junior; now, at 18, she just graduated to her own full-size car. Sarah shares her passion for drag racing with her family, particularly her father. Even though she’d been thinking “forever” that she’d eventually graduate high school and become a veterinarian, early in her senior year, when she learned how much veterinary school was going to cost, she began to rethink her options. A close friend was attending the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, or TCAT, for machining -- and Sarah began to think that maybe she could also get a machining certificate, so she could get a good job at the local Alcoa aluminum plant, or even work on car engines.

“To be completely honest, I didn’t even know that I was going to go to college,” she said. “I work two jobs, and I knew that, even with working another job over the summer, I couldn’t afford it [college] myself. And my dad works all the time, too [he is self-employed, and owns his own jet ski repair shop]. I just thought to myself, there’s just no way I can afford it. Maybe I’ll go later on, after I graduate and get some money saved up.”

Courtesy of Sara Goins
Courtesy of Sara Goins

Then Goins began paying attention to the continuous announcements coming over the school intercom, telling seniors about the deadline to apply for a program that would allow them to go to college in Tennessee for free. “I was like, OK, I’ll look into it, because I didn’t think it was actually free,” she said. “Whenever people say, ‘free college,’ you go, ‘No way, there ain’t nothing free about that.’ It will come back and get you.”

But when she got home and went to the  Tennessee Promise website, she saw that it was true: With a few minimum requirements, she could go to college for free, and it would not come back and get her, or ask her to pay it back.

Tennessee Promise, the "last-dollar" scholarship program that promises to cover the entire cost of college to any Tennessee student, filling in any gaps after Pell Grants, the Hope Scholarship and other scholarships, was the brainchild of Knoxville mayors Mike Ragsdale and (now Governor) Bill Haslam, along with local businessman Randal Boyd. Krissy DeAlejandro, who now serves as executive director of tnAchieves, the Tennessee Promise partner organization, was former Mayor Ragsdale’s deputy chief of staff, and said she’s been with the program since it was an “idea on a whiteboard,” when the group was looking for a way to bring a “world-class workforce” to Knoxville.

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“We knew that one-third of students were graduating from the Knox County school system and not pursuing any kind of post-secondary education directly following high school,” she said. “The need for a world-class workforce, and knowing that one-third of your graduating population are entering that workforce without any type of credential, was necessary for business and industry.”

She said they took a close look at the students who weren’t pursuing higher education after high school, and found they had three things in common: 1) They tended to be lower- to lower-middle income; 2) They were academically fragile, meaning they weren’t eligible for academic scholarships and would also require remediation, typically math; and 3) No one in their family had ever been to college before.

Together, they built a program called KnoxAchieves, which worked to eliminate what they saw were the barriers for this particular group in entering the higher education pipeline. Using private money raised within the community, KnoxAchieves provided up to the last dollar to ensure that students wouldn’t pay any tuition, and the program would work to bring these high-risk students into community colleges, which proved to be a good fit for students’ needs as well as kept costs low for the private funders. The requirements to qualify were simple: There was no GPA requirement and no income cap; any student could take part if they wanted to; and, in exchange for the tuition money, students were asked to provide eight hours of community service each semester that they attended college.

Nurturing Real Connections

Perhaps the most important part of the program, however, was not the free tuition, but the mentor assigned to each student -- a volunteer who was just a phone call or text away, ready to answer questions or make sure deadlines were being met.

“In some ways, if no one in your family has ever been to college, you need an encourager, you need a resource, someone who can talk to you about what’s a credit hour, what’s a semester,” DeAlejandro said. “So we developed a volunteer mentoring program. For us, this was about being a conduit between the program and the students, someone who could be, for lack of a better phrase, pulling for the student. Someone in their corner who could be like, ‘Let’s get through it together.’ ”

After KnoxAchieves was launched in 2009, DeAlejandro said they quickly saw that the scholarship/mentor combination was retaining and completing students at levels that were higher than both state and national averages. The program quickly spread to other counties, so by the time Gov. Haslam introduced the program to the whole state earlier this year, the Promise program was already serving 50 percent of Tennessee’s high school seniors.

Goins just met her mentor, retired dietician and hospital administrator Laura Harrill, for the first time recently. Harrill came to a Tennessee Promise meeting at Goins’ high school, just weeks before they were set to graduate in May. Goins said Harrill was funny and likable, and gave the six students in her charge ways to contact her by email, phone or text.

Laura-HarrillHarrill has been volunteering as a Promise mentor since 2008, and has helped 29 students through college, some who have transferred and gone on to four-year institutions. Harrill has a friendly, folksy manner that is simultaneously sweet and no-nonsense, and loves the program so much that she has coaxed her retired friends into volunteering, too. Harrill sees her main duties as keeping students on track, reminding them of deadlines and due dates for important forms, but also being available to answer questions for first-time college students who often don’t understand the nuances of navigating the college system.

“I know one time, a student emailed me, and I could tell that she was just brokenhearted,” Harrill recalled. “She had gotten an email from the college that her classes were going to be canceled because she had not paid her fees. I called tnAchieves, and there had indeed been a glitch in the transfer of funds. They said, ‘Every one of our students is getting that email. Tell her not to worry and to keep going to class, we’re paying the bills.’ But rather than not going to class, the student emailed me [her mentor], and I reached out to find out what was going on. You build a trust with your students so they can reach out when they are worried or scared about something, and they don’t know what to do.”

Harrill swears that the mentor/student relationship works because mentors aren’t parents. “They know I have their best interest at heart. And I know the ropes,” she said. “If I don’t know the answer, I can certainly find out. With their parents, they may not be so honest with them that they got a notice, or feel like they might embarrass their parents because they don’t know [what to do].”

Harrill is planning on keeping in touch with both Goins and her father over the summer, checking in as the day to start college gets closer. Harrill said she can tell that Sara is driven to succeed, and thinks she will be successful. “I tell my students, I am here no matter what. I’m not going to bug you, but I am going to ride herd on you about deadlines, and things that I know are important.” Through experience, Harrill has seen that the extra push of a mentor can help students reach success.

The scholarship/mentor/community service combination of Tennessee Promise has indeed shown great promise: in their state-wide inaugural year, the Promise has seen an uptick of 4.6 percent college-going rate increase overall, and a 10 percent increase in full-time freshman enrollment. The program inspired President Obama’s America’s College Promise, his proposal to bring the Tennessee Promise last-dollar scholarship program to the whole nation.

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“Often, what’s reported in Tennessee is the free college, which is so critical to the conversation,” said DeAlejandro, “but we want everyone to be pulling in the same direction. And again, that’s the holistic approach: We understand that yes, the funding implement is critical, but we also understand that we need to build supports around these students in order for them to be successful.”

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