When President Obama outlined steps in September to make his proposal for free community college a reality, his call for change reflected a movement that had already gained momentum. There are now more than 100 local community and state efforts that have vowed to pursue reduced-cost or tuition-free learning, many in conjunction with Mr. Obama’s America’s College Promise program and its associated awareness campaign, known as Heads Up America.

As the push for free community college continues to spread nationwide, college leaders in some states are trying to expand the reach of such programs to include the adult students that so many community colleges already serve. Many of the so-called Promise models focus on younger student populations, says James D. Schuelke, deputy director of the Heads Up America campaign.

In Oregon, for example, 68.2 percent of community-college enrollments involve students age 22 and older, but adults are not yet eligible for the Promise program there, which is aimed at high-school graduates. It’s important that policy makers "pay equal consideration to adults who are seeking opportunity," says Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, who hopes to expand Oregon’s efforts to include those learners.

Older learners can face challenges that some younger students don’t, such as balancing a job or family responsibilities, says Louis Soares, vice president for policy research and strategy at the American Council on Education, who specializes in community-college reform. The programs provide new opportunities where others may have failed, but meeting a variety of needs, Mr. Soares says, is critical for a program’s success.

Alabama is one state taking the plunge, with an effort to get more parents in the classroom. In a series of poverty-stricken counties known as the Black Belt region, where fewer than 20 percent of adults have bachelor’s degrees, local community colleges will open doors at no cost to some adults next summer. When the colleges announced the decision in partnership with the federal program known as Gear Up, in September, there was both enthusiasm and "disbelief that the state is willing to do this," says Mark A. Heinrich, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System. Alabama’s plan will be financed by the community-college system, on the heels of Gear Up’s pledging to help 10,000 sixth and seventh graders in low-income families prepare a pathway to college. Mr. Heinrich decided each parent of a Gear Up child should be able to attend free. The system’s colleges reach more than 25,000 working-age adults each year, but leave behind "15 times that number," Mr. Heinrich says. "I don’t think we’re doing a good job of addressing those who are disadvantaged."

It’s the responsibility of community colleges, he says, to help where traditional methods have failed.

"We’re trying to create a culture of sustainability," says Veronique D. Zimmerman-Brown, project director of Gear Up. She hopes to draw 50 parents for the summer session, with an increase after the first group gets underway. "The more educated parents are, the stronger the support system for students."

A Working Model

Colleges in Tennessee unveiled a similar idea this fall, called Tennessee Reconnect. The state program covers tuition for any eligible adult at the state’s 27 colleges of applied technology. The state already provides grants to help people gain technical skills, but this is the first widespread effort to cover all tuition costs for adults, says James D. King, vice chancellor for the colleges of applied technology. People without degrees typically have lower-income jobs, and "if it costs an extra nickel to go to school, you’re thinking about paying the light and food bills," says Mr. King. "If you eliminate that cost, now students just have to invest the time."

The colleges saw a 26.7-percent enrollment increase this past fall between Tennessee Promise and Reconnect, which included an increase of 4,900 adult students. Offering support to adult students inside and outside the classroom is key, as the programs may cover tuition and fees but leave out other expenses like books and child care. At the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Nashville, Melanie R. Brooks, a senior instructor in early-childhood education, helps students find child care near their homes.

In addition to requests for traditional services like academic advising and tutoring, Cindy L. Beverley, student-services coordinator at the Murfreesboro campus, hears concerns about long work hours and readjusting to the classroom. She credits close relationships between students and faculty members with helping to keep students enrolled. "We have to be more compassionate because people are also going through real life," she says.

The colleges are also retooling their offerings to better match students’ training with work-force demands, since some communities have struggled to maintain industry. Timothy G. Smith, coordinator of student services in Oneida, says the college there plays a key role on the path to employment, serving many students who are referred from an unemployment office or "repeat customers" who come back to learn new skills for the changing market.

Lawrence E. Tyson, principal investigator for Gear Up Alabama and an associate professor in the counselor-education program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, knows that colleges in his state "won’t be able to meet every need of every student," since Alabama’s program will focus on low-income parents. But he hopes discussions with those parents will provide insight into the biggest challenges they are facing.

At Wallace Community College, in Selma, preparations will involve lending more support for services that already exist to help first-generation and low-income students, says Donitha J. Griffin, dean of students there. To "ease the fear of returning" and curb the dropout rate, she says, the college will increase the staff in its Student Success Coaching Program, which pairs coaches with at-risk students for weekly support.

"We see a lot of people that want to go back to school, but never thought they could," says Ms. Griffin, who will meet with parents in January. "We’re excited about the possibility that it’s going to change a generation."

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Source: The Chronicle For Higher Education