Ever since President Obama unveiled his proposal to make two years of community college free for every American, it seems like all we’ve heard about is the money. How much would it cost? (Answer: about $6 billion.) How much would it bring in, once those students graduate, get better paying jobs, and contribute more in taxes?
Here’s what no one seems to be talking about: actually finishing.
Just 35 percent of students who start a two-year community college program get their degree within six years. There are a lot of reasons for that, says Krissy DeAlejandro, who started a full-tuition community college scholarship program in her home state of Tennessee.
There isn’t one big reason why students tend to drop out, says DeAlejandro, but a combination of lots of little reasons. If their parents haven't been to college, which is the case for most of the students DeAlejandro works with, all of the college jargon can sound like a foreign language.
"Oftentimes, what we've found is that they have questions you or I would take for granted like, 'What's a semester?' or 'What's a credit hour?' Those sorts of things, little barriers, will make a student throw up their hands and say, 'You know what, this is not for me.'"
In Tennessee, DeAlejandro confronts these challenges with a unique weapon: volunteer mentors. She has a cadre of thousands. They visit high schools in 83 counties and help high school seniors keep up with all of the paperwork and deadlines so they can earn the scholarship.
Once the students get on campus, DeAlejandro and her team follow up with texts, emails and regular face-to-face meetings. The state of Tennesee's fall-to-fall retention rate for community college students is about 50 percent. But among DeAlejandro's scholarship students? That retention rate is closer to 80 percent.
So far, President Obama's plan doesn't include any of the mentoring or other supports DeAlejandro believes are so critical. Even though she and a colleague visited the White House over the summer to brief members of Obama's staff, it doesn't appear, at least, like they've taken all her advice.
Still, DeAlejandro says she supports the President's program and is excited to see how it evolves.
Want to keep up with all the latest DecodeDC stories and podcasts? Sign up for our weekly newsletter at decodedc.com/newsletter.