Student loan debt in the United States now totals more than $1.5 trillion dollars. While presidential candidates will spar over the cost of "free college" or eliminating student loan debt over the next 14 months, communities and colleges are searching for solutions now.

The most popular proposal to reduce or eliminate the cost of tuition is what is known as a "College Promise Program." But is it enough?

Over the past year the Tyler Morning Telegraph has looked at how local Promise programs could serve as a model for others across the nation.

This three part series originally appeared in the Sunday editions of the newspaper throughout October. We've compiled the entire series into one article, with a new video breaking down the costs and challenges students face.

PART ONE: How a scholarship program is serving as a model for community change

How much is a promise worth? For one East Texas school district, a promise already is reshaping the community.

For Alyssa Isaacs, a promise kept gave her the opportunity to start her own business with minimal debt. For parent Amanda Kellis, it eliminated the uncertainty about how her family would send three children to college.

A city of just 5,500 residents in East Texas might not be the first place people would think of when looking to pilot a program that could change the college landscape, but it’s happening in Rusk.

Over the past five years a scholarship program at Rusk High School has made good on almost 150 life-changing promises.

With a $3.25 million gift from Citizens 1st Bank and the James I. Perkins Family Foundation, the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise scholarship program became the first of its kind in the state when it launched in 2014, according to TJC.

The first Promise program was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, more than a decade ago and has inspired similar programs around the nation. As of April 2019, 24 states had passed or taken steps to write statewide promise programs into law, according to CollegePromise.org.

The Rusk promise differs from the Kalamazoo program and better represents many of the programs being launched by both colleges and state legislatures. The goal, however, is the same.

The Kalamazoo program is good for any college in Michigan and funds are applied before financial aid for eligible students. It is what is referred to as a first dollar program, whereas the TJC program is considered last dollar. With the latter, state and federal financial aid are applied first and the college makes up the difference for tuition, books, fees and housing up to $2,000 per semester.

TJC’s Vice President for Advancement Mitch Andrews said last dollar programs can stretch funding further, making them more attractive to donors and lawmakers.

For the stakeholders though, the program is about more than just providing a scholarship. Their goal is to transform a community. To qualify, students must graduate in the top 50% of their high school class with a grade point average of 2.5 or higher and attend TJC within three years of graduating from Rusk High School.

A Perkins family representative said their goal was to increase educational opportunities in the community and they hope to see the program transform the educational culture of the community from pre-K to 12th grade.

When the Rusk promise launched in 2014, it was the first community promise initiative in the state. In just five years, the results already are creating change in the community.

Successes

Between 2012 and 2017, the rate of Rusk High School students pursing postsecondary credentials has more than doubled, from 36.3% in 2012 to 73.4%. That rate is a critical component of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 60x30TX plan, which aims to increase the number of adults age 25 to 34 earning a certificate or degree to at least 60% by 2030. The plan also looks to increase the number of students completing their degrees each year and reduce the amount of student loan debt they hold.

The first class of Rusk Promise students posted an overall degree completion rate nearly 20 percentage points higher than their first time in college peers at TJC, with a 5-year completion rate of 47.06% compared to their peers. Each of the subsequent classes has continued to post completion rates higher than that of their peers.

TJC’s data shows that each class of Rusk promise students complete their degrees earlier and more often than their first time in college peers. For students enrolling in TJC in fall 2013, first time in college students showed a 2-year completion rate of 11.82%, while the Rusk promise cohort was at 26.47%.

While TJC has seen growth in those metrics, the Rusk cohorts continue to outpace first time in college students. The most recent TJC graduating class showed first time in college students completed their degree at a rate of 14.33% compared to the Rusk cohort’s 34.09%.

Those students also posted a higher cumulative GPA than their peers of 2.57 compared to the first time in college students GPA of 2.05.

One major reason for the success of students is the program’s coordinator Megan Cumbee Burns, herself a Rusk High School alumna, who works directly with students to ensure they’re on track.

Burns helps students with all of the traditional roles a college adviser would, but also builds a relationship with students, follows up with them when grades or attendance begin to slip and meets regularly both individually and as a group.

“We’ve seen it over and over again with Promise Programs, that you can bring the money, you can get the students to the table, but you’ve got to have that support,” Burns said.

While students sign up for the program in high school, they are not committed to it. Students are still free to pursue scholarship opportunities at other schools, while taking advantage of the extra support the program offers during their high school years.

Rusk ISD Superintendent Grey Burton said the program has been nothing short of transformational. Throughout the year, TJC and Rusk ISD partner to host events for advising, financial aid assistance, registration and more. By the time students walk the stage for their high school graduation, they already have completed everything they need to start college the next semester.

From 2014 to 2017, the program has seen 66% of students enrolled choosing TJC.

Burton said the support students receive is helping them see that they really can go out and make it through college.

“Jimmy Perkins and my dad graduated high school from Rusk together at the same time and they both went to University of Texas. My dad came home after one semester,” Burton said. “It wasn’t because he wasn’t smart. He wasn’t prepared and the second half of this program is not just the money, it’s the backing and the support we have in place.”

Burton said that while the financial aspect is a big draw, families have come to rely on the support system and especially Burns.

“It’s so much more than … getting a scholarship, it will absolutely change their lives,” Burton said.

Kellis, a Promise parent, said that one of the biggest lessons other communities can learn from Rusk is the importance of that support network.

“I think that having that accountability system is important, because I feel like even as adults we sometimes drop the ball,” she said. “That’s something that if someone is going to implement in that program they’d need as well.”

Challenges, opportunities and a look ahead

During a roundtable with the Tyler Morning Telegraph, Rusk parents and students said housing was the single biggest cost of attending college.

Kellis said that her family and many others have children who chose to commute the 45 minutes from Rusk to Tyler for classes in order to save money on that additional cost. She said that while the commute isn’t overly taxing, other options such as online classes are a huge bonus.

Her oldest daughter had completed some dual credit classes in high school which helped stretch her scholarship dollars when she was accepted into the nursing program. She also considered taking courses at the TJC campus in Rusk State Hospital, which offers nursing and health science courses.

When her younger daughter Claire starts college next fall, she’ll be doing so with the intent to transfer and complete a bachelor’s degree. Kellis said having that extra two years to look for scholarships and prepare already is making their lives easier.

“Blessing is an understatement; it’s taken so much stress and uncertainty off of us,” Kellis said.

Starting a business fresh out of college was a challenge for Isaacs, but it was a challenge she said she knew had been made easier by not having additional student loan debt on top of the costs of getting her business up and running.

“It would have been a lot harder, I would be in debt a lot longer,” she said. “It wasn’t an easy decision. I didn’t necessarily want to come back to Rusk because the Tyler area is bigger, but ultimately I wanted to be closer to my family and I just feel comfortable here in this community and I like it.”

For Burton the challenge of bringing students back to the community after graduation is a priority. With two sons away in college, he wants to see his hometown become a place for students to find opportunities to come home to.

“Our long game here is to encourage our students to graduate. We want them to come back to Rusk. We want our city and our community to grow,” Burton said. “I don’t want you to have to go to Houston or Dallas to get a job; we want to have those jobs here.”

To that end, the district is working hard to build a college-going culture for all students, and to help them see they also have the opportunity to pursue vocational or professional certificate programs with the Promise program.

“As a student, I know that in the past (few) years a lot has changed,” Claire Kellis said. “A lot of people have been making comments like, ‘I wish I would have worked harder and gotten (the scholarship). I think that it’s kind of made everybody compete for the top 50 percent and made everyone work harder.”

Rusk High School Principal Ronny Snow said what’s happening in Rusk is a road map for communities across Texas.

“There are a lot of communities that are like Rusk and they have families with the financial means to do something similar,” Snow said. “Getting the word out that this is a possibility, to partner with a local community college, could literally change the lives of thousands and thousands of our fellow Texans.”

For Tyler Junior College, the lessons they’re learning in Rusk are being put to use. The TJC Promise Program which will serve all schools within the TJC tax district is set to launch in the fall of 2020, with an inaugural class of about 800 students.

PART TWO: The challenges of expanding access to more students in East Texas

When Tyler Junior College launched its Rusk TJC Citizens Promise scholarship program in 2014, it was designed to do two things — begin a transformative effort in the community and serve as a pilot for a much larger future program.

It has done both. TJC and six area school districts are preparing for this year’s high school seniors to be the first students in that new, larger program. The TJC Promise will provide eligible students from Tyler, Chapel Hill, Grand Saline, Lindale, Van and Winona school districts with a scholarship to cover all tuition and fees for up to two years at TJC.

With five years of data under their belt from the Rusk program, TJC has seen what works, and what has to change in order to expand access.

Thus far, 44 students comprised the largest class of the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise program. In fall 2020, more than 600 freshmen will enter college under the TJC Promise scholarship.

The TJC Promise program is nearing 4,000 students signed up to participate as this year’s high school freshmen join.

Mitch Andrews, TJC’s vice president for advancement, said the number of freshmen signing the Promise Pledge has grown with each new class. For example, Winona High School has 15 students set to enter TJC as Promise recipients next fall, but signed up more than 70 freshmen this year to begin working toward the scholarship.

A successful $20 million fundraising campaign ensures the six school districts can continue to participate in the program in perpetuity.

There are some key differences in requirements between the TJC Promise and the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise. For the TJC Promise, students must sign up their freshman year, maintain a 2.5 grade point average through high school, meet attendance requirements, complete community service hours and enter TJC the fall following their high school graduation. Students cannot accrue more than 10 unexcused absences each year and must complete 10 hours of community service by April of each year.

The new requirements were put in place in partnership with the school districts in order to strengthen college-going culture, motivate students earlier and get families more involved in the process.

“By connecting to students their freshman year and setting specific achievement standards for the Promise program, we help participating students to be successful in high school and prepare for college,” Andrews said. “We instill behaviors and skills that can serve students throughout their lives. We also wanted to connect to parents, especially for those students who are first-generation college, to help parents help their students.”

As with the Rusk Promise program, the TJC Promise also will have a dedicated on-campus adviser who will work regularly with participating students. Andrews said that having a success coach is critical to student success, noting that scholarships alone can’t guarantee success.

“I think that’s part of the appeal of our program; it’s about the whole student,” he said. “It’s not just grades.”

Diane Carnes, Tyler ISD’s coordinator for the program, said the attendance requirements are one area where issues have cropped up.

Carnes said they’ve had to reinforce to parents and students that large amounts of unexcused absences, due to things such as families taking vacation during the school year, can impact student eligibility.

Andrews said the college and districts also realized there was more work to do in order to meet the state’s 60X30 Texas goals over the next decade, which has set a goal of 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 having some college or postsecondary credential by 2030.

Of the six districts participating in the TJC Promise, the percentage of adults living in those areas who do not have a college degree ranges from 65 percent in Tyler ISD to 82 percent in Grand Saline. Van leads the districts in the percent of students who attended college by district in 2017 with 51 percent, according to Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reports. Grand Saline sent 34 percent of students to college that year.

“This is a major reason that we pulled our tax district high schools into the partnership during freshman year of high school — college readiness ... ” Andrews said. “Our high school partners play a significant role in helping to prepare students. The more prepared, the more likely students will remain in college and complete a postsecondary credential.”

As big of an expansion as moving to six school districts is, there still are many in East Texas that aren’t participating.

The six school districts included in this TJC Promise are Tyler, Chapel Hill, Grand Saline, Lindale, Van and Winona. In Smith County, that leaves four school districts without a similar program — Arp, Bullard, Troup and Whitehouse. Those schools sent nearly 200 students combined to school at TJC from their 2018 graduating classes, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Those boundaries leave some families with concerns.

Rusk High School graduate Maddison Long said she and a group of classmates were crestfallen to learn they weren’t eligible for the Rusk Promise, just days after the first signing ceremony in 2014.

“About a week later they called us in and told us we didn’t qualify because we lived outside of the district,” Long said. “It was a little disappointing. I know some other students who were told that were let down. That’s all some other students had to look forward to.”

Long said she was told she didn’t qualify because she was a transfer student and her family resided in Jacksonville, outside of Rusk ISD. She said that while the financial aid office helped her find alternative scholarships, some students weren’t so lucky.

The college has since worked to ensure that wouldn’t happen to other students. Former TJC President Mike Metke helped ensure a solution with what he referred to as an “equalization fee.”

“For Van, there is a more significant percentage of students that reside outside of the tax district. However, Van HS is within the TJC tax district and is participating in the TJC Promise program,” Andrews said. “For those students, they receive the same scholarship as the in-district student. However, they pay the difference in tuition cost between in-district and out-of-district. “

While TJC’s taxing district mostly covers Smith County, the state has set its “service area” to include most of Cherokee and Wood counties, with only Rusk ISD students having access to a similar promise program. Of high school classes graduating high school in 2018, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board lists 87 districts as having sent at least five students to TJC.

No other college in the region has set up a similar scholarship program. The nearest program that is similar is run by the Dallas County Community College District.

Andrews said the college first wants to ensure this second Promise program is successful before further expanding. TJC does offer dual credit opportunities for most districts in the area, and also has helped set up Early College High School programs with district partners. TJC’s dual credit programs allow high school students at participating schools to take college-level courses at no cost and obtain high school and college credit simultaneously.

Other costs to consider

While the TJC Promise program does cover a substantial portion of the cost of going to college, experts say that the biggest expenses come outside of the classroom.

Andrews said that 70 percent of full-time TJC students in the 2018-19 academic year required some sort of financial assistance.

As part of the Promise requirements, students get help filling out their FAFSA and college applications. They also get guidance in the search for other scholarships.

The college said they have found that the top three issues facing Promise program students nationwide are mentorship and guidance, food insecurities and transportation.

Andrews said that as the program has taken shape, it has become apparent that transportation could become a problem for students living outside of Tyler. The public transit system in Tyler already is limited, leaving some residents walking a significant distance to reach a bus stop with routes typically following major roadways and few stops existing in heavily residential areas. Students not on the Yellow or Green line running by the main campus may also have to transfer, which can sometimes leave them waiting for up to an hour for the next bus.

“We are hearing that from some of the six communities involved in the new TJC Promise Program and I think that’s something we’re going to have to work together with our communities to address,” Andrews said. “As we go into the senior year and look at those kids, those are some of the things we’re going to have to address. How do we handle those challenges?”

Outside of Tyler city limits, options for public transit are extremely limited. The regional GoBus service runs through Tyler on Tuesdays and Thursdays, according to its website.

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the cost for a Lyft rideshare from Tyler Junior College to Grand Saline High School was listed as $67.09. An Uber rideshare was listed at $72.96.

Some options to help alleviate transportation issues include online classes and partnerships with public transit. Andrews said finding a solution will be among the highest priorities when the college next meets with the superintendents of districts in the program in the coming months.

Rusk High School graduate Alexis Long, no relation to Maddison, said food and gas were the largest expenses she incurred while attending TJC. She worked a part-time job to help cover the $60 to $80 per week she would spend on gas and food, if she didn’t prepare meals at home.

For students struggling with food insecurity, TJC has established an on-campus food pantry that is partially funded through the college’s employee giving campaign.

Unlike the Rusk program, the TJC Promise does not cover the cost of books, which can be substantial.

Another unexpected cost that could force students to take out loans is child care. A 2014 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research showed that 26 percent of all undergraduate students were raising children.

Data from the college and the federal government show promise program students are as likely to receive grant aid and less likely to take out student loans when compared with the general population of the college.

For the 2015-16 academic year, the percent of full time, first time in college students receiving grant aid from state or federal sources was 68 percent. The percent of students likely to take out loans was at 44 percent, according to the college’s 2017 integrated postsecondary education data system (IPEDS) report. For 2017-18, the college has 58 percent of students receive grant aid and 43 percent opt to take out student loans.

An analysis of financial aid data for the 149 students who have gone through the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise program showed 64 percent received additional grants from either the state or federal government. During the same time period, 36 percent opted to take out student loans through Direct Plus, Subsidized or Unsubsidized programs.

The leadership team at Tyler Junior College hopes that by addressing these challenges, they can not only expand their own programs, but also help other communities begin their journey toward more affordable college.

PART THREE: Students face much larger financial burdens than just tuition and fees

Across the state and nation, colleges and lawmakers have been working on a variety of scholarship programs that tout a free education, but most don’t actually cover the largest costs of attending college.

While any amount of scholarship or grant money helps with costs, students face far larger bills when books, transportation and living expenses are accounted for.

Tuition and fees account for about a quarter of the expenses for college students, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But as students grapple with paying for classes along with housing, food and transportation, colleges are working on how best to provide support both in terms of guidance and resources to help students reach their academic goals.

Tyler Junior College President Juan Mejia said families should be wary of the term “free college.” He said so far he hasn’t seen a plan that could truly cover all the costs of going to school. At TJC, he said their focus is on removing barriers to access and helping students leverage all available resources. The college already has one Promise program in operation — the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise — and another much larger one — the TJC Promise — set to launch next year.

While 24 states have written versions of college Promise programs into law, there are more than 200 in the nation, according to collegepromise.org.

Most of the programs are “last dollar,” meaning grants and other scholarships are applied first and the Promise program fills in the remainder of the cost of tuition and fees.

A 2018 study by the Brookings Institution found that since most low-income students receive more financial aid, they are less likely to benefit from last dollar programs.

As TJC prepares to exponentially increase the amount of Promise students on campus with the first class of TJC Promise students in fall 2020, they already have a successful model for support services.

TJC has worked to create a system to help students get on track to go to college and better prepare themselves for the needs beyond tuition and fees.

Megan Burns works with the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise students beginning in high school and helps guide them all the way through to graduation or transfer to a four-year school. Her office combines the role of mentor, counselor and adviser for those students. Over the next year TJC will hire additional coordinators to work with the six school districts that comprise the TJC Promise scholarship ahead of their students starting college in fall 2020. Those districts are: Tyler, Chapel Hill, Grand Saline, Lindale, Van and Winona.

Winona ISD Superintendent Cody Mize said that for their semi-rural community, that coaching can make all the difference.

“I think a mentor is going to be extremely valuable for them. They’re going to hit roadblocks, especially if they’re the first generation of their family to go to college, that they’re going to need someone to turn to and have a conversation with,” Mize said. “Sometimes just get a word of encouragement. I think that’s why the leadership and coaching aspect is going to be so important.”

Burns also helps students find other scholarships and financial aid to make up for the costs beyond what the Rusk promise can cover.

Even with awards of $2,000 per semester, some students still see bills for tuition and fees. In a letter to the editor submitted to the Tyler Morning Telegraph, the writer detailed the expenses a recipient of the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise saw after the scholarship money was applied. Those expenses totaled about $400 due to living out of TJC’s tax district.

Those numbers are in line with estimates from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s cost of college calculator, which has TJC’s average out of district tuition and fees totaling $4,762 per year at 15 credit hours per semester. While most of the students will reside within the TJC tax district, some of the more rural schools will have students enrolling that do not.

In addition to tuition and fees, other expenses can create challenges for students. The higher education coordinating board estimates students will spend $1,300 for books, $8,400 for room and board, $3,700 for transportation and $3,160 in other expenses for a grand total of $19,522 per year to attend TJC.

Winona High School seniors Anna Stone and Madeline Kimble said they hadn’t realized just how much more work there was going to be in order to get additional financial aid, so they didn’t dedicate enough time to the process and now find themselves scrambling.

“I didn’t think the application process to different colleges and scholarships would be so scary,” Kimble said. “People always say you have so much time. Now, it’s my senior year and I’m a little bit further behind than I would like to admit.”

Stone said she made the mistake of thinking she had more time to search for other financial aid because the process of the TJC Promise was made easy for them. As she began her senior year, she hadn’t realized just how much she wasn’t considering beyond the cost of tuition and fees.

“I think cost is also a thing for me,” Stone said. “I know my parents can’t provide the whole tuition to a big university, so (the TJC Promise) takes the ease off of me as a student more. I have that little security blanket for me going to college.”

Both Stone and Kimble said they were thankful though that the Promise program required community service, because now their applications for other scholarships are much stronger.

Winona High School freshman Bailee Wilson just signed up for the program and already is learning from her peers.

“It helps (with the stress),” she said. “I think it’s good knowing that I have support.”

By staying close to home Wilson’s family hopes to cut some of the costs. Her father, Aaron Wilson, said he was a nontraditional student, going back to school as an adult to get his degree in nursing, and he’s preparing his daughter for the financial realities of college. He knows all too well the pitfalls of having to take out loans.

“I’m excited for her that she’s able to get this service and that college mindset,” he said. “For her to go to college and have a chance to get it paid for is great. I didn’t have that opportunity. I’m still paying for mine.”

Itemizing the bill

While the cost of overall attendance at TJC might seem high, it’s actually in line with the costs students can expect across the state from community colleges and quite a bit less than a major university. The factors that fluctuate most across the state revolve around housing and infrastructure, the latter primarily affecting students’ transportation costs.

Mejia said while other scholarships and grants can help cover costs, the college also has to work to create efficiencies to ensure they’re doing what they can to keep bills from rising.

Tyler ISD Career Counselor Diane Carnes, who helps coordinate the TJC Promise on the district’s end, said that this year she has been trying to get students thinking about these other scholarship opportunities early and often. She said in previous years she’d been left with multiple local scholarships that no one had even applied for, so educating students about what’s available from local foundations is going to be key.

A look at rural Texas can offer insights into challenges colleges across the country may face when attempting to create a Promise program similar to TJC’s and how to create efficiencies.

Nearby Kilgore College costs a bit less than TJC, mainly due to the difference in cost of living. Students still can expect college at KC to cost them an average of $17,384 per year.

The National Center for Education Statistics estimates the average cost for students who attended a public, two-year institution in the U.S. to be about $15,083 annually if living on campus or $17,000 if living off campus and not with family, according to the most recent data from 2017-18. Tuition and fees averaged $3,642 of that total. To provide some perspective, a person earning minimum wage would earn $15,080 annually before taxes if they worked 40 hours per week.

In far West Texas, the oil boom has caused a housing crisis. Strong branch locations are becoming critical for colleges trying to serve rural students who can’t afford the cost of living. East Texas also is reliant upon the oil and gas industry, but most of the onsite work has shifted west.

“I think that teaching sites can create efficiencies in the community,” Mejia said. “As you start getting scale and volume, you can launch full campuses.”

Mejia said while online or off-site learning locations can help reduce costs, colleges need to ensure that students are maintaining the same quality of learning.

“Use online when it’s going to lead to student success,” he said. “If the students are not ready for that modality, that’s not what we should be doing. There’s a lot of moving pieces.”

Online classes, dual credit courses at high schools and satellite teaching locations are some of the solutions colleges are looking to, whether they serve rural East Texas or the communities in the West Texas deserts.

Due to skyrocketing housing prices, the average annual cost for an in-district student at Midland College, which had an enrollment of 6,347 in 2015, is about $1,000 more than the cost of attending the University of Texas at Tyler. Students at Midland College can expect annual average housing to cost $15,253, nearly double the estimate of $7,918 at UT Tyler, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s cost calculator.

Living on campus at Midland College would run $2,669.62 per semester or $7,260 if the student stayed on campus for the year including summer terms.

One way UT Tyler has been able to keep the cost of housing down is by finding innovative ways to expand the number of beds on and around campus. Since 2014, the college has purchased two nearby apartment complexes and converted the apartments into multi-student units.

Rebecca Bell, executive director of institutional advancement for Midland College, said in an email, that because the service area is so large, many students rely on taking online classes or utilizing the college’s branch location in Pecos County.

Bell said if lawmakers were to pass a statewide Promise program, the college likely could handle an influx of students.

“Due to the booming West Texas economy because of the oil and gas industry, our student enrollment is down compared to three years ago. When the economy in West Texas is booming, people are working and not going to school,” she said. “Therefore, we could handle 500-1,000 more students in some programs without overcrowding classrooms. However, there are other programs, such as health sciences programs, where additional students would cause strain on facilities and equipment.”

Midland College is not considering a Promise program, but does have a foundation that gives $1,050 per semester to recent Midland County high school graduates. Students must maintain a 2.75 GPA in high school and perform 40 hours of volunteer service.

Bell also noted that many of the college’s private scholarships include housing assistance for the residence halls. The college has housing for about 300 students, including 10 family residence units, according to Midland College’s website.

Housing prices also are causing challenges at nearby Odessa College, averaging $11,310 annually.

Kim McKay, vice president for student services and enrollment management, said Odessa College is turning to branch locations and extension centers to combat the cost of living in Odessa.

The Odessa College service area is massive stretching more than 300 miles from its northernmost community to Terlingua on the border, and nearly as far across.

“For those students who are traditional students and reside in those (rural) areas, cost of living is pretty prohibitive here in Ector County,” McKay said. “We do have extension centers in Monohans, Pecos and Andrews, all within less than an hour from the main campus.”

The college relies on online instruction in its most rural reaches, but works to ensure students in those communities know online classes are an option.

“We also know it’s really important to get instructors and college representatives out to those areas to put a name and face to the institution,” she said.

The college sends representatives out at least once per semester and also is equipped to talk to potential classes over video messaging services such as Skype and FaceTime.

McKay said the college would be in a good position to accommodate additional students thanks to those branch locations and online classes. She noted that students in rural areas also can come to the extension centers for internet access.

“We would be prepared to accommodate it, being really creative in delivery, modality and even in some creative scheduling,” she said. “We’re up for leveraging our extension centers and working with community centers. We’re prepared, if that’s the way the state moves, to use our resources.”

McKay said some of that creative scheduling could include late evening classes, which might appeal to shift workers.

Odessa College isn’t looking into a Promise program of its own, but has been working on creative financial incentives such as a free first class for students and a “completion bonus.” McKay said the completion bonus is a cash incentive awarded to students after they complete a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year institution.

A model for the future

Tyler Junior College said its two Promise programs, the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise and TJC Promise, are designed with a second goal they believe is just as important as the financial aspect – building a college-going culture and successful students. The infrastructure in place at TJC, with five locations in the area, allows students from more rural reaches of East Texas to expand their options beyond just living on campus.

In neighboring New Mexico, lawmakers are preparing to launch a statewide program that takes cues from the same institutions TJC looked to when modeling its Promise programs. The Tennessee Promise program, which launched the same year as the Rusk TJC Citizens Promise, was an inspiration to TJC and New Mexico. New Mexico’s program will take much of what TJC is doing and apply it on a much larger scale.

As New Mexico’s governor Michelle Lujan Grisham leads the charge to pass a statewide program called the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, officials are working to ensure they have the systems in place to build successful students.

Mejia said the best advice he can offer is for lawmakers and educators to reach out to those communities early and often.

“What I would really recommend is that they convene the stakeholders and have some dialogue,” he said. “Something that we do really well, is that people in East Texas come together. We talk.”

Carmen Lopez-Wilson, deputy cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Higher Education Department, said institutional readiness is a key concern as the bill moves toward becoming a reality.

“Probably the most important question is what wraparound services need to be implemented at each institution to adequately meet student needs,” Lopez-Wilson said.

She said the state is going to have to work to replace counseling and support services that were lost due to funding cuts, especially for those serving students in rural areas. Lopez-Wilson’s office has partnered with colleges of education across the state to begin moving people back into those positions ahead of potential student increases in fall 2020.

In New Mexico, Lopez-Wilson, said the branch and extension location model has worked well to serve students in the most rural areas of the state.

Mejia said that working with those communities will be key. His approach is akin to listening and letting those communities tell lawmakers what their greatest needs are, because they know them best.

“For our friends in New Mexico, I’d really encourage them to be alive, and well, ... being in the community,” he said. “Don’t build any defense mechanisms, really listen to what the community has to say.”

New Mexico expects to serve about 55,000 students with the program, which fills in the gap left by a previously built lottery-funded scholarship. Lopez-Wilson said officials recognize that the cost of college is far more than just tuition and fees though.

“The true cost of attendance includes tuition, fees, books, course supplies and living expenses,” she said. “We’re working with the Legislature to determine whether and how to address the remaining cost of attendance, which includes living expenses.”

Lujan Grisham’s Press Secretary Nora Sackett said the office estimates the program will cost $25 million to $35 million annually, and is expected to be taken up by lawmakers when their legislative session begins in January.

“Gov. Lujan Grisham has made improving public education, both K-12 and higher ed, a top priority of her administration,” Sackett said in an email. “In her first legislative session she successfully spearheaded and signed into law the state’s biggest ever investment in New Mexico public education, a ‘moonshot’ for public education, including new funding for multicultural education, bilingual education, and educator raises, among other things. K-12 public education initiatives are one aspect of a multifaceted approach that also includes the Opportunity Scholarship to improve New Mexico education create more and better opportunities for New Mexico students.”

Sackett said that the goal of the program is to remove barriers to higher education, starting with tuition, which she described as the biggest barrier to access for students.

Sackett said that Gov. Lujan Grisham believes that increasing access to higher education through the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship is going to be a game changer for the state.

For states trying to build Promise programs like those at TJC, the programs are a solution to the part of the problem they can most directly impact, but challenges will remain.

“The Promise is trying to make the classes and the programs of study as affordable as possible to the student without having to increase the cost to the taxpayers and the state,” Mejia said. “How do we leverage other sources?”

TWITTER: @TMT_Cory

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

Cory is a multimedia journalist and member of the Education Writers Association, Criminal Justice Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He has appeared on Crime Watch Daily and Grave Mysteries on Investigation Discovery.

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