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free community college
Graduates line a hallway waiting for fall commencement at Shelton State community college in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Credit: AP Photo/The Tuscaloosa News, Michelle Lepianka Carter

As states focus on increasing the number of low-income students who go to college, Alabama has added another target group – their parents.

Last year, Alabama promised 10,000 sixth and seventh graders at more than 50 schools in a poor area of the state free community college tuition, along with extra tutoring and mentoring. This fall, state officials are holding meetings at six community colleges in the region to recruit the parents of those students, who will also be able to enroll tuition-free.

“We believe this to be a real game-changer,” said Lawrence E. Tyson, a professor who is leading the initiative. “One way to change the culture of not just a community, but also a home, is to involve the parents.”

The schools whose families are receiving this offer are in a region of Alabama known as the Black Belt, which historically has had some of the highest poverty rates and lowest levels of formal education in the nation. More than one-quarter of African-Americans in the region live in poverty. In most of Alabama’s Black Belt counties, fewer than 15 percent of adults have bachelor degrees. Students whose parents have graduated from college have a better chance of getting a degree themselves, research shows.

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Alabama’s effort is part of the federal government’s GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) program, which is designed to increase the number of low-income college graduates nationally. But no other state has included parents in its efforts. Alabama’s program is slated to cost $49.5 million over seven years, half of which will come from local matching grants.

“This is a way for the community colleges to work with the industries that are moving in.”

The job market in Alabama has improved over the past decade, as manufacturers have moved south, lured by tax breaks, labor union scarcity and low pay rates. Still, some of these companies have complained about the relatively small pool of qualified workers, Dr. Tyson said.

“The businesses have said, ‘You need to get some people who are qualified, or we may have to leave,’” said Veronique Zimmerman-Brown, Alabama GEAR-UP’s project director. “This is a way for the community colleges to work with the industries that are moving in.”

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The colleges will hold career fairs and orientations aimed specifically at parents this spring, with the goal of enrolling them in summer classes. Of course, it may take more than free tuition to attract parents, who are likely to be juggling family and job responsibilities. So the program will also provide tutoring, counseling and financial aid to cover extra costs, such as books and transportation.

Officials hope that college degrees will lead not only to higher family income, but also allow the parents to act as role models for their children as they consider their college options.

“When you get family buy in, you don’t have to count on outsiders, there’s a mentor inside your home,” said Dr. Zimmerman-Brown. “It builds strength in the community.”

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