The Comptroller of the State of Tennessee recently issued a report on outcomes of the state’s Reconnect program. According to the Comptroller’s analysis, students in the program were slightly more likely to complete a degree program than similarly situated students not participating in the program.
Tennessee Reconnect is a state-funded initiative designed to increase the percentage of Tennesseans who have a college credential to 55%. Applicants accepted into the program have five years to complete their credential.
According to the report, the program is enrolling fewer eligible Tennesseans. From 2018-2020, more than 91,000 people applied for a Reconnect grant. That is about 5% of the eligible participants in the state. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of those applicants either did not complete the initial program requirements or withdrew their applications.
Since the program began in 2018, the application rate has dropped by 46%. The report indicates two explanations for the decline. First, in the program’s first year, the State allowed students already enrolled in a community college program to apply for a Reconnect grant. Second, 2020 – the last year of the study period – intersected the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also speculated that marketing efforts would increase enrollment. Currently, the state does not budget any funds to market the program. Community college administrators in the state believe that a sustained marketing program would increase enrollment in the program.
The Comptroller’s report found that the most common barriers to program admission were procedural. They included things like obtaining prior college transcripts or filling out the FAFSA. Community college administrators also found that filling out applications for either the program or the institution could frustrate a person’s attempt to receive aid.
Tennessee Reconnect lessons on offer
Of the 32,200 students who entered the program, about 25% lost their Reconnect grant because they did not maintain their eligibility. For example, the program requires students to enroll in at least six credits per term. Other eligibility requirements include filing an updated FAFSA form and program application each year. Most students deemed ineligible lost their Reconnect grant because they did not maintain the required minimum number of credits. A smaller number of students failed to maintain the program’s required academic standards.
When community college administrators followed up with students who did not maintain their minimum enrollment requirements, students most often cited the demands of work or family. A smaller number of students indicated that they could not afford the other costs associated with attending school.
Losing Reconnect eligibility did not always result in students leaving school. About 40% of students who lost program eligibility remained enrolled the semester after leaving the program. Typically, this happened because they received enough financial aid or grants from other sources to pay for their educational costs.
These challenges are not unique to the Tennessee Reconnect program. The Comptroller’s report highlighted the most common reasons community college students fail to remain enrolled in classes or complete a credential.
Simple issues like not knowing that they must refile a FAFSA form every year/i> keep students from succeeding. Nearly one-third of all community college students are first-generation. They may have little support or mentorship from relatives who have already navigated the college landscape. Additionally, these students may not know that they need to maintain a minimum enrollment or academic performance to receive continuing financial aid.
Identify and assess barriers students face
The biggest barrier to student success, however, is addressing priorities that compete for students’ attention. Low-income students are under significant financial pressure. The need to work is non-negotiable for most students. They need flexibility to both work and study. When balancing the demands of work is not their biggest challenge, meeting family obligations is.
Reliable childcare is one of the biggest challenges student-parents face. Losing on-campus childcare hurts student-parents. It also discourages would-be students from enrolling. We can never know with certainty the impact of WCC’s decision to close its childcare center. How many people cannot enroll at WCC because they have no reliable, affordable childcare?
Although this report refers to the Tennessee program, it perfectly describes the challenges that confront community college students. Addressing these challenges could allow more students to remain enrolled. Two Tennessee community colleges piloted programs in 2020 to help students navigate the program requirements. Persistence rates there for program participants increased from 38% to 53%.
These basic barriers also highlight the damage done by spending general fund dollars meant for student support services on a health club. They illustrate the problem with closing the on-campus daycare center. And they underscore the sheer idiocy of putting 13 Vice Presidents on the payroll. All these decisions frustrate student success, waste taxpayer resources, and generate negative returns on the community’s investment in WCC.
And in response to all of this, our elected Trustees sit on their hands.