Earlier this month, Business Week published a story querying if the state of Tennessee’s project to provide “free” college to any citizen who signs-up and takes classes should be the standard operating procedure across the nation. It sounds good. So, how has it worked? Eligible Tennesseans apply about 80 percent of the time, but only a handful actually progress to enrolling in classes. And of those, nearly 20 percent drop out after one semester. Sadly, half quit by the end of three years.
Jobs, family obligations and a panoply of other distractions are cited for the disappointing stats. We are reminded, as the article rightly points out, that money is not a magic wand. So-called “wraparound services” are suggested to prop up the Tennessee Promise. Help finding day care, stable food, appropriate additional financial support and connection to tutoring are among the range of suggested benefits. There is some evidence that these may increase persistence, but no single one is sufficient to stop the bleeding and save the state.
Should more, or less, be expected from students trying to move their way up? Is it possible that our sympathy rather than expectant support reinforces the failure? Certainly, folks need grit and encouragement from those they trust to overcome the challenges of life’s hardships. When are working, studying, car repairs and family relationships justifiably regarded as overwhelming, and when are they best described as commonly human, and therefore simply routine?