The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I want to go further than my daddy did’: What free community college means to kids

How it feels to apply for (free) college.

Darren Cumming, right, and his classmate Desiree Schutt both applied to the Tennessee Promise program. (Photo provided by Jennifer Berry)

President Obama’s community college plan likely won’t happen nationwide anytime soon. And it won’t be a cure-all for our student loan debt woes. But the idea is already sparking hope among low-income Tennessee students.

On Friday, Obama proposed slashing the cost of community college “down to zero.” The deal would cover two years of tuition for any American willing to work toward a degree or certificate while maintaining a 2.5 grade point average. Building a stronger workforce, Obama declared, is a bipartisan goal.

Many Americans get caught in negative social spirals because of poor decisions they make early in life. Chelsey Stone and Cleo-Thera Rand both made choices that could have kept them living in poverty. But going back to school, with financial help and counseling, may change that for them. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

Nine million students could eventually snag a piece of this educational pie, the White House estimated, and save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Of course, the Republican Congress would have to first approve the $60 billion program, to be paid over 10 years.

Obama modeled his national proposal after Tennessee Promise, a program that, starting next year, will provide free community and technical college tuition to applicants for two years. About 58,000 students — 90-percent of Tennessee’s high school seniors — have already applied.

Storyline talked to three seniors who hope to reap the first round of benefits.

Alexis Matthews, 17, Austin-East High School in Knoxville:

“My mom isn’t working right now. My daddy is in prison. My neighbor drives me to work at JC Penney, where I make $8.50 an hour. I pay for the gas.

I honestly don’t know if I could go to college without this kind of help, [the Tennessee Promise Program]. It’s such a relief.

My plan: I want to start at Pellissippi Community College in Knoxville. I would try to transfer after that — not sure where, yet. I love dancing and singing and cosmetology, doing nails. I’d like to make a career related to something I love. School is important to me. I have a 3.1 GPA.

I’m glad Obama’s trying to get the world to see what Tennessee is doing. You don’t want people to just give up because they feel like they can’t afford college. Money is always a struggle. Everyone has their struggles. People look at me like… I can only go this far. My daddy was in foster care. He got in trouble. He’s trying to better himself now. I want to go further than my daddy did. That’s my inspiration.”

Darren Cummings, 18, Stratford STEM Magnet High School in Nashville:

“A year ago, I had no idea how I was going to pay for college. I heard about the Tennessee Promise Program and thought, ‘Thank God. There’s an opportunity.’

I live in east Nashville. I’d like to attend Nashville State Community College, about ten miles from my house. I’d go for two years and then transfer to a four-year college — maybe Belmont or Butler University in Indianapolis. I want to run a business someday. I woke up yesterday and read the Wall Street Journal. Paying for college is the first step.

I come from a middle class family. On top of school, I work about 30 hours per week at TGI Fridays for about $11 an hour — I really have to stay on top of things to make that work. I save money from my paychecks. For college, I have $400. I’m so grateful — to my school, my counselors and the program — for the possibility of help.”

Khari Dixon, 18, Austin-East High School in Knoxville:

“I was thinking about joining the military, any branch. Or going to work right after high school. Just apply everywhere. I don’t know how else I could pay for college. I just don’t have the funds. This scholarship, though — it’s a way to make it happen.

I applied in September. I’m waiting to hear back. I’d want to go to a community college in Tennessee — and then transfer to the University of Tennessee. My dream is to study anything art-related or go to culinary school. I love drawing. I drew a cheeseburger today.

Obama visited Knoxville today. I watched it on a computer. I  saw him doing his handshakes. Me, I’m not into politics. But I know how important education is. I know he’s doing a lot of us a favor.”