What We Can Learn From One Family That Took Tennessee's Free College Offer | Nashville Public Radio

What We Can Learn From One Family That Took Tennessee's Free College Offer

Dec 17, 2018

Jim Bare never used to spend his Friday nights working on math. Now, he does it willingly — often with the rest of his family.

In September, Jim, 65, signed up for his first semester of Volunteer State Community College under the Tennessee Reconnect program. His daughter also enrolled there. So did her husband. And her mom.

For them, college this fall has been a family affair. 

Although their decision to sign up as a family may be uncommon, their individual stories — why they're going back, what their difficulties are — represent many of the nearly 15,000 adult students who enrolled this fall as part of Tennessee Reconnect, which guarantees free tuition at community college. And they reveal the challenges for the program that's trying to make a major change in the state's workforce.

'I'll Tag Along'

Jim Bare had no great aspirations to go back to school. In fact, he tried college a few different times, including once on the G.I. Bill. Nothing ever stuck.

"It was an exercise in futility," he said, laughing.

Now, he's trying not to fall behind. One evening early in the semester, Jim sat in his daughter's dining room, watching a remedial math video. He's a school custodian, so he's also been using the computer lab in the building during his lunch break to do work for his math classes. 

"And it's great," he says. "I'm learning stuff that — I'm not saying they didn't teach it [before], I'm just saying I didn't pick up on it."

It was Jim's son-in-law, Michael Austin, who got the family into the idea of going back to college.

"As soon as I heard about the Reconnect program, I was like, 'This is it,' " Michael said.

"I got bit by that bug. I wanted to go back to school."

This fall was the first official semester for the program called Tennessee Reconnect, which waives tuition for adults who've never earned an associate's degree. Michael, 34, has been doing well for himself at a staffing agency and even recently got promoted. But hearing about Reconnect made him think, what if this new job was the ceiling for someone like him, with just a high school diploma?

"The very first day you could sign up for Reconnect, I submitted my application," he said.

He told his mother-in-law, 51-year-old Kim Bare, who saw that Volunteer State was having an informational session. She mentioned it to her daughter — and Michael's wife — Jessica Austin.

"We decided to go to one of the sessions, and Jim said, 'I'll tag along. Sure, we'll go get dinner,' " Kim said. "He isn't one to be left out. If we're all doing something, he's got to do it, too."

Jim had a different take: "I got bit by that bug. I wanted to go back to school."

Policy Versus Reality

To understand how Kim, Jim, Michael and Jessica all ended up enrolled at Volunteer State Community College for free, you have to rewind a year and a half: back to January 2017, when Gov. Bill Haslam gave his State of the State address. He'd already launched a free tuition program for students going straight from high school to community or technical college — Tennessee Promise, which has received national acclaim.

But Haslam had a loftier goal to make a major change in the state's workforce. He wanted to increase the portion of Tennesseans with a college degree from about one-third to more than half. This, he said, means many adults will need to go back, too.

"We have to do more for adults in Tennessee," he said. "We’re making a clear statement to families with Reconnect: Wherever you might fall on life’s path, education beyond high school is critical to the Tennessee we can be."

Reconnect is billed largely as a jobs program: It can make the state's workforce more competitive, especially by training people in the industries of the future, like IT or advanced manufacturing.

"We have to realize there's a person behind each of these initiatives that we have ... that have different dreams and goals for their lives that aren't always economically driven."

But ultimately, policy changes come down to real people making real decisions about their lives. Kenyatta Lovett, head of nonprofit Complete Tennessee, says sometimes those decisions don't line up with what's best for the state.

In Lovett's experience, people often care less about an in-demand career and more about a sense of accomplishment.

"We have to realize there's a person behind each of these initiatives that we have, or there are people behind that, that have different dreams and goals for their lives that aren't always economically driven," he said.

That's the case with Jim Bare, who's pursuing a history degree out of his own interest. He plans on remaining a school custodian after graduating and calls his decision to return to school "strictly selfish."

"I wanted to more or less prove to myself that I could do it," he says. "It's a personal thing for me."

Two Out, Two In

Even for those trying to advance their careers, they're finding the process can be unexpectedly difficult. According to the state, 86 percent of Tennessee Reconnect students say they're working at the same time. That includes Michael Austin, who travels several days a week for his staffing agency job.

Others are full-time parents, like his wife, Jessica Austin, who's a stay-at-home mom homeschooling their two children.

"Honestly, it's just finding the time," she said of doing her schoolwork. "The best time I find are when my kids go to bed."

Jessica Austin, Michael Austin, Kim Bare and Jim Bare signed up together for the Fall 2018 semester at Volunteer State Community College. But the stressors of work and parenting have made it difficult.
Credit Emily Siner / WPLN

The balance of work, school and parenting is tenuous for many adults — and Tennessee Reconnect students are no different.

In the middle of the semester, Michael was traveling for his job and couldn't come in for a mid-term he was supposed to take. His mother-in-law, Kim Bare, said that hurdle discouraged him from continuing his classes.

Then, Jessica offered to help a friend going through a tough time by watching her kids while her friend is at work. School just wasn't feasible with that schedule, she realized.

Now, at the end of the semester, only Kim and Jim are planning to sign up for classes in the spring.

This is probably the biggest challenge Tennessee Reconnect will have to grapple with as it gets off the ground: The barriers to college may have been lowered — there's no tuition anymore, there are lots of online classes for the busy student — but the barriers of raising a family and having a job aren't going anywhere.

Kim says it's easier when you're older and don't have kids. She often works until 8 or 9 at night as a paralegal. But then, at least she and her husband Jim can just focus on their homework. "I get home from work, he usually gets home before me, and we just sit at the kitchen table and start going through whatever we're doing."

Kim says she's been waiting for this opportunity to go to college since she graduated high school. Her dream is to become a lawyer — a goal that she acknowledges could take more than a decade to complete.

But at the end of the semester, Kim is feeling encouraged. Jim has studied hard and earned a B in remedial math.

And Kim gets all As on her final exams — ending her first semester of school in more than three decades with a 4.0.