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VOL. 9 | NO. 12 | Saturday, March 19, 2016

Graduate Memphis Putting College Degrees Within Reach for More Adults

DEVIN GREANEY | Special to The Daily News

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Imagine a company coming to Memphis promising to add $140 million annually into the local payroll. This company was not asking for tax breaks or free rent, just the opportunity to come to Shelby County and pump this money into our economy and pay taxes.

That's $140 million per year for Memphians to buy a house, eat at local restaurants, contribute to charities or whatever. Even if you are not going to be hired by this company you should still be excited especially if you are selling a house, involved in a charity or own a restaurant.

Joya Smith, Alton Crier, Renee McCreight, right, with Graduate Memphis in the College Resource Center at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Bad news first. This is not a company that has made overtures to the area. The good news – it is an obtainable scenario where an additional 1 percent of the adults in Shelby County could obtain a bachelor's degree or higher.

When it comes to residents having a college degree, Metro Memphis ranks 130th out of the 150 largest U. S. metro areas. And that $140 million? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are roughly 700,000 people in Shelby County age 18 or older. The bureau also says the average person with a college degree earns $20,000 per year more than one with a high school diploma. Add a master's degree and that's an additional $11,000 per person per year.

Graduate Memphis is trying to make this happen by helping people who are in one of the nation's largest demographic groups – "some college" – achieve their dreams. Alton Crier, Memphis Talent Dividend coordinator for Graduate Memphis, reaches out to employers, nonprofits and businesses to tell them about the program.

"We work onsite with adults who want to go back to school, advising them, helping with financial aid and making them aware of the different opportunities available to them,” Crier said. “We help with financial issues and credit issues."

Memphis has roughly 200,000 people with some college credit but no degree, so if Graduate Memphis can help a percentage of those adults move forward and get their degrees, it will benefit the local economy, he said. The Plough Foundation helped fund the program.

Today he is on the third floor of the Benjamin Hooks Library helping potential students and their families with Free Application For Student Aid (FASFA). Leadership Memphis, Alpha Phi Alpha, Memphis Urban League of Young Professional and state officials were helping out. In addition, area colleges are enthusiastic about the program.

"We're working together to better serve as a collaborative, not in working in silos, which has been the story in Memphis" he said.

Joya Smith is the retention coach at Graduate Memphis who helps adults through school, making sure they have tutors who know about the resources available when they are on campus.

“It's really a hand-holding process,” Crier said. “We're here for you, we're here to support you and we really want you to graduate."

Maybe you started at Memphis State University, Southwestern, Christian Brothers College or State Tech back when those were still the correct names of those institutions. You had a vision, took classes, did better at some than others, then life happened. Jobs, family, the elusive class that you could never quite pass. You've been happy with those years, but that notion of not graduating is still annoyingly in the back of your mind as much as you want it gone. And something is keeping you from returning.

"I think the first thing is fear of failure because you have already stopped before," Crier said. "That’s why we are here to go through the different options, to go through the support systems that are there for the student."

Julianna Walker can relate. After being a diesel engine mechanic in the U.S. Navy, she did not find any job openings when she moved to Mississippi. She made the decision to go to college. Financial aid was hard to come by, but she found out about Pell grants through her perseverance.

"I told them there had to be an exception for people like me, and I wouldn't leave," she recalls. Then she studied journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi.

"It was intimidating and I was older than everyone else, except in my night classes," she remembers. At 32, she graduated.

Walker was the first outreach coordinator for Graduate Memphis.

"When I learned how my possibilities grew by going to school, I became passionate about helping others grow themselves," she said.

The program’s emphasis is on people like Walker – Shelby County residents age 25 and older with 30 plus hours of college credit – but they are happy to work with younger students and those starting up with fewer hours, says Renee McCreight, director of the program. One myth is that a student has to start from scratch.

"That’s not true,” McCreight said. “Several programs students can use work and volunteer hours. It will be up to the academic adviser."

"Since 2012 ( when the program started) we've had 21 to complete their degree," McCreight said, but that is just a small part of the story. "We are looking to have 1,000 re-enroll in college by next year. We've helped over 500 people reenroll."

And they have advised 3,000 people, Crier added, but it goes even further. Once younger people see their mother or grandmother persevere and graduate, "You have generational change. Now you have generational blessings that open a door they never had before."

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