Even When College Is Free, It Can Be Hard For Adults To Stay In School Tennessee Reconnect has helped thousands of adults afford a college education, but for many older students, the financial support may not be enough to get them to the finish line.

Even When College Is Free, It Can Be Hard For Adults To Stay In School

Even When College Is Free, It Can Be Hard For Adults To Stay In School

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Yifan Wu for NPR
Adults going back to college face many challenges.
Yifan Wu for NPR

Jim Bare didn't used to spend his Friday evenings watching math videos. But then again, he didn't used to be a college student.

Bare is one of 13,000 adults who enrolled last fall in Tennessee Reconnect, a state-led program that gives free community college tuition to almost anyone over age 25 who doesn't yet have a college degree.

Bare, who is 66 and works as a school custodian, first heard about the new program after his son-in-law signed up. Bare's wife, Kim Bare, then saw that nearby Volunteer State Community College was hosting an informational session, and she recruited their daughter to come along.

"And Jim said, 'I'll tag along. Sure, we'll go get dinner,' " Kim says. "He isn't ever one to be left out."

"I got bit by that bug," Jim explains. "I wanted to go back to school."

And that is how Kim, Jim, their daughter and their son-in-law all ended up enrolling in community college — for free.

More challenges ahead

With no tuition, taking the plunge seemed remarkably easy — and not just for the Bares. The number of adults who applied for Reconnect last year exceeded state officials' expectations. But, as college administrators and current students know well, tuition is just one of many barriers that adult students face.

For the Bares, they've been able to overcome the biggest challenge so far: fitting homework into their already long days. For Kim, who often works 12 to 14 hours a day as a paralegal, it has meant keeping a strict schedule.

"We had to get in a routine. We had to understand that you come home from work, you grab a sandwich and you sit down and do the work," Kim says. "That, and pizza. I'm really tired of pizza."

But for the Bares' daughter and son-in-law, the commitment was overwhelming. She was also home schooling their two children. He traveled often for work. By midsemester, they had both dropped out.

This decision is not uncommon. Staying in college as an adult is notoriously difficult, and in Tennessee, the community college six-year graduation rate has wavered between 27 and 30 percent in recent years.

In other words: Among those who start community college, fewer than one in three will get a degree within six years.

That's not a good sign for a program premised on getting adults to finish college. But other early numbers are more promising. Some community colleges have reported higher fall-to-spring retention rates among Tennessee Reconnect students compared with the non-Reconnect adult population. At Dyersburg State Community College in West Tennessee, 81 percent of Reconnect students stayed on; only 62 percent of other adults did.

Falling through the cracks

Reconnect eliminates the biggest financial stressor of going to college: tuition. But schools need to do more to prevent students from dropping out, says Mike Krause, head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. His office administers Tennessee Reconnect and its sister scholarship for graduating high school seniors, Tennessee Promise.

Right now, he says, community colleges are trying to improve their processes for enrolling, registering and advising to make them as seamless as possible.

"Ultimately this has got to be about making sure students don't fall through the cracks because there aren't any cracks," Krause says. "We should always find ways for the state and campuses to bear as much of the support level as possible. I'm never going to blame a student for not succeeding in college."

But there are many factors that pop up in the lives of adults that no institution can control — namely, their ability to balance school, work and family. In this first cohort of Tennessee Reconnect students, 56 percent have children and 76 percent work. More than half are working full time.

"Put that in a bowl together — what's going to take priority?" says Pam Carey, who oversees the Office of Adult Learners and Veterans Affairs at Volunteer State Community College. "Your job and your family. That's the priority."

Carey's office recently added a "relational completion adviser" to help support Tennessee Reconnect students, a role that's as much sympathetic listener as it is guidance counselor. The woman in the new role, Amy Hoffman, applauds the state for addressing the major financial burden of attending college. But other concerns, like navigating child care or working around job schedules, remain.

"They're having this wonderful opportunity to come back to school, but life is different as an adult," Hoffman says.

She says she notices a difference between the students who make it and the students who don't, and it's not just the resources provided to them. Life is challenging for all of them, she says. To make it work, they need an extra level of grit and self-assurance.

"They may have moments of feeling overwhelmed by it all and want to give up, but they somehow choose not to," Hoffman says. "They persevere through the challenges."

Extra support is key

That has been true of 31-year-old Megen Roberts, at least this time around. She first tried college four years ago, but one of her children, who has special needs, fell ill. Roberts dropped out.

But a few years later, she had a revelatory moment that pushed her to try again.

"I seriously was at work one day, and I just looked up, and everyone around me was really stressed, and everyone around me looked pretty miserable," she says, "and I decided, 'Yeah, I'm going to go back to college.' "

In the fall of 2017, Roberts came back with a renewed determination and decided to focus on studying her passions: history and archaeology.

She also secured an on-campus position as a student ambassador, giving tours and working events for the school. In exchange, Volunteer State Community College pays all her expenses, including textbooks. Roberts also developed friendships with the other ambassadors, giving her a sense of community. That external support — both financial and emotional — has been a game changer.

Even still, she says, it hasn't been easy. One semester she got shingles. Then pneumonia. She broke her finger. "I mean, every semester has had something insane," she says.

But thanks to finding the extra support and tapping into her own internal drive, Roberts is now just a few months away from graduating.

The question for Tennessee Reconnect is how many other adults will be so lucky.