LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In Tennessee, community college is already free for graduating high school students, something many other states have done or are looking at as a model. But recently, Tennessee became first in the country to offer community college free of charge to almost any adult. Emily Siner has the story from member station WPLN in Nashville.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: The first day of college is daunting anyway, but Michelle Griffith felt especially out of place. It was August 2015. She walked into the sleek, glass-paneled atrium of Motlow State Community College outside Nashville.
MICHELLE GRIFFITH: There was an entire lobby full of traditional students, and having to walk through them was hugely intimidating (laughter). I just pretended I knew what I was doing (laughter).
SINER: Griffith is 54, old enough to be the mother of some of her classmates. And she sometimes acts like one.
GRIFFITH: Hey, Michael.
MICHAEL: Hey. How are you?
GRIFFITH: How are you?
MICHAEL: Pretty good.
GRIFFITH: Test today?
GRIFFITH: Oh, good.
SINER: Griffiths says, growing up, she had always planned to be a traditional student. But when she got married right after high school, that changed.
GRIFFITH: Babies came quickly, and school got farther and farther away.
SINER: Instead, she was busy raising kids, working and eventually putting them through school. Then, her husband died four years ago. And with her children grown, she decided she needed to figure out what to do next.
GRIFFITH: And I kept thinking, school. School - that's what I want to do.
SINER: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has long preached the importance of getting adults back to school. He says it's the only way that more than half of Tennesseans will get a college degree or certificate, one of his top goals as governor.
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BILL HASLAM: I'm proposing that Tennessee become the first state in the nation to offer all adults access to community college free of tuition and fees.
SINER: This is his newest idea, the Tennessee Reconnect Grant. The state has been piloting a version of the grant but only for adults who started college, got halfway through and then dropped out. The new Reconnect is much simpler. If you don't have a degree and you want one, your tuition is free. That's important because research shows the greatest obstacle to going back to school for many adults is finances.
GRIFFITH: When you don't have to worry about the money, it's huge in encouraging you to keep at it. Yes, I can do this because all I have to give up is a little time.
SINER: When Michelle Griffith enrolled two years ago, she actually qualified for a full federal grant, and the state expects many adults who sign up for Reconnect will. The program will only use state lottery money to pay for anything that isn't already covered by other grants. And that's the beauty of Reconnect. It guarantees free tuition no matter what.
ALLISON BARTON: I get tons of calls, I heard what Governor Haslam said.
SINER: Allison Barton, who oversees adult learners at Motlow State Community College, says it's a simple and therefore powerful message. The question then is, how do you get that message out? When talking to high schoolers, they're basically a captive audience. But adults...
BARTON: This is just kind of, you're throwing out a giant fish net and hoping they all, you know, come in.
SINER: And even for adults they can reach, Barton says getting them through the program is another challenge.
BARTON: They may have a schedule change at work, and they can't get a sitter or whatever it may be.
SINER: Nationally, only about a third of adults who start community college finish. And that number is even lower if they go back part time, which Tennessee Reconnect allows them to do. The state argues the flexibility is necessary. Otherwise, they say, very few adults would bother enrolling. But they do hope to recruit motivated students like Michelle Griffith, who's now a year away from her degree.
GRIFFITH: Every day when I walk into class, it's just overwhelming. It's just an overwhelming experience to think, I'm doing this. I'm doing this.
SINER: Griffith is thinking about going to a nearby university after to get her bachelor's, and she's been encouraging friends to follow her lead in community college. Some are considering it, but she thinks the free guarantee will get them to commit. For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.
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