Deadline extended

More Tennessee Promise mentors needed in Shelby, 43 other counties

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam greets Nashville-area community college students to launch Tennessee Promise in 2014.

About half of Tennessee counties still need volunteers to mentor the record number of high school seniors who applied for the state’s tuition-free community college program, prompting the state to extend its deadline.

As of Tuesday, Shelby County had the greatest shortage and needed 509 more volunteers to serve as mentors for Tennessee Promise, the state’s pioneering program to get more students to attend in-state community or technical colleges. Home to the state’s largest school system, the Shelby County also had the most students apply: about 8,650.

In all, 44 of Tennessee’s 95 counties still need volunteers, although some, like Campbell County, need as few as one. Last Sunday’s deadline has been extended to Dec. 1 for volunteers in those counties to apply, according to a spokeswoman for TNAchieves, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the program.

Other counties had substantial surpluses in volunteers and have closed applications. Nashville’s Davidson County, for example, has a surplus of 296 volunteers.

Statewide, about 61,000 high school seniors have applied for Tennessee Promise. They’ll go through a nine-month process of qualifying that includes working with an adult mentor.

Research shows that mentor relationships help students not only enroll in college, but finish. On average, Tennessee Promise mentors spend about an hour a month working with up to seven students as they transition from high school to college, reminding them of important deadlines, encouraging them, and serving as a trusted resource. Mentors must be at least 21 years old and attend a one-hour training and two one-hour meetings with their students over the course of a year.

When Tennessee Promise launched in 2014, Tennessee became the nation’s first state to offer two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees. Even as the state struggles with college preparedness, it’s seen a boost in college enrollment. 

new chapter

Kristina Johnson appointed chancellor of SUNY as state’s controversial free tuition plan kicks in

Kristina Johnson, the newly appointed chancellor of SUNY.

Kristina Johnson was named chancellor of the state’s public college system, SUNY announced Monday, a job that will include shepherding New York’s brand new college affordability plan.

“I’m very excited and grateful to be here and [have] the opportunity to serve a system and a state whose governor has put higher education front and center in his agenda,” Johnson said.

An engineer by training, Johnson is currently CEO of a company that focuses on providing clean energy to communities and businesses and served as under-secretary of energy for President Barack Obama. Previously, she was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University.

Johnson, who starts in September, will replace Nancy Zimpher, who will step down in June after an eight-year stint at the top of the state university system. Zimpher was known for casting SUNY as an institution driving economic growth, and for trying to elevate the teaching profession through a program called TeachNY.

As chancellor, Johnson will oversee a system that served 1.3 million students in 2015-16. And as colleges across the country grapple with issues raised by student debt, Johnson takes the helm at a significant moment.

The state’s new Excelsior Scholarship will provide free tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for families earning less than $125,000 per year. Governor Andrew Cuomo has hailed the scholarship as a national milestone in the free college movement. But experts have raised questions about whether the plan’s rules, including strict credit requirements and a requirement to stay in-state after graduation, will limit the number of students who can take advantage of it.

Johnson did not share any of those criticisms when interviewed by the New York Times in an article Monday, calling the scholarship “outrageously ambitious.”

In a statement, Zimpher praised her soon-to-be replacement. “The future of SUNY is indeed bright under the leadership of Dr. Johnson.”

critics of cuomo

CUNY students join chorus of protests against Cuomo’s ‘hypocritical’ college tuition plan

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

Representatives from the University Student Senate of CUNY — the very demographic who should benefit from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s tuition plan — are joining protests against the “hypocritical” plan Tuesday afternoon, according to a press release from the Alliance for Quality Education.

The protest by AQE, an organization that has long criticized the governor, is the latest in a round of backlash against Cuomo’s free college tuition plan. The New York Times has been highly critical of the plan on its opinion pages. Experts have questioned whether the plan will leave students with surprise loans instead of reducing student debt. One lawmaker has already promised to introduce legislation that would rid the law of one of its most controversial requirements.

Cuomo unveiled the proposal to provide free college tuition in January while standing next to Senator Bernie Sanders, who championed the idea of free college during his run for president. When the dust settled on the budget process earlier this month, the state created the Excelsior Scholarship, which is supposed to provide free college tuition at SUNY and CUNY schools for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

But it wasn’t long before the details of the plan led to questions — and criticism. As Chalkbeat has reported, the plan will do little to help the lowest-income students, who already receive enough state and federal financial aid to cover the cost of tuition, but often need help paying for things like rent and books.

The plan requires students to take 30 credits per year and graduate on time, even though the majority of SUNY and CUNY students don’t graduate on time. It does not cover part-time students, which make up about a third of the SUNY and CUNY population.

The final straw for many was a requirement that students live and work in-state after graduation for the same number of years as they received the “Excelsior” scholarship. If they do not, the scholarship will turn into student loans, as Chalkbeat pointed out last Monday.

Cuomo has defended himself against these arguments.

“My point is very simple: These are public colleges and they should be open to the public,” Cuomo said. “Ideally they should be free. We can’t get there, but this is a first step.”