David Dulberg
November 2018

Not Broken, Not Yet Fulfilled: The Tennessee Promise

They say money doesn’t solve all your troubles. Neither does free tuition. At least not for low-income students participating in Tennessee Promise. For those students, though, more resources in the form of food, shelter, counseling, and tutoring might help.

After four years, Tennessee’s free community college initiative has helped thousands of students. But it has also fallen woefully short for those that need it most: students on the lowest economic rungs. A last-dollar scholarship, Tennessee Promise kicks in only after state and federal aid, including Pell Grants, have been used. For low-income students, this means Tennessee Promise actually gives less support to them than middle or upper-income students who don’t qualify for need-based support.

Promise Funds Go To Higher-Income Students

A recent WPLN article featured a student, McKenzie Wallace, who received a Pell Grant that covered her tuition at Volunteer State Community College. So, while her more well-off classmates received Promise funds, she received none. She had to scramble to buy books and pay for basic living costs. Like so many students, she works to keep herself afloat. But her family barely gets by and can’t help when she gets behind. Students like these are most at risk since they are one financial hardship away from leaving college.

A recent survey of  Volunteer students found that about two-thirds of students could not provide themselves enough food. The school opened a pantry, that Wallace works at. Still, this doesn’t begin to fix the stronger headwinds that she, and all low-income students, face.

This mirrors a national study by the Wisconsin Hope Lab that found that more than one-third of four-year college students were food and housing insecure. They found that students who are challenged paying rent and utilities or have to move frequently are considered housing insecure. Students experienced this lack of security at differing rates depending on race, ethnicity, and income. Well over half of Native Americans faced housing insecurity at four-year institutions, while 43 percent of Blacks, and 39 percent of Hispanics were similarly challenged. Startlingly, nearly one in 10 of all university students were homeless, meaning they slept in their car, a shelter, an abandoned building, or outside.

Similarly, food insecurity is defined as uncertainty about the availability of nutritious, safe food. It was experienced at very high rates, nationally, by all students. Blacks, 47 percent, and Hispanics, 42 percent, were the most food insecure. On the other hand, Asians, 27 percent, and whites, 30 percent, were the least food insecure.

The Grinding Cycle of Income Insecurity

Wisconsin Lab researchers note that students who are the most food and housing insecure, work the most outside of college. They also had the least amount of time for leisure and sleep. These stresses usually translate into lower grades and lower rates of degree completion. This, in turn, often leads to financial challenges after college, including difficulty keeping up with student loan debt.

Administrators at Volunteer State recognize that low-income students may need more services. Especially if Tennessee is going to be serious about helping its youth get the education they’ll need to compete in tomorrow’s job market. A food pantry is a step in the right direction. But low-income students also need intensive counseling, tutoring, and emergency grants. These would increase educational focus and help these student make it through financially rough times. For now, though, many students are one trip to the doctor, or a car repair, or an emergency at home away from having to give up school completely.


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David Dulberg

David Dulberg lives with his wife in the coastal hills above a narrow creek, mid-canopy in a redwood forest. He has been writing for non-profits for many years, and volunteers as a pilot on the Baum Squad, a tandem bike riding program for the Earle Baum Center for the Blind. He does not have a pet. This does not make him a bad person.

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