Tennessee College Access and Success Network’s Bob Obrohta Wins 2018 Executive Leadership Award of Excellence


Bob Obrohta, executive director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN), received the Executive Leadership Award of Excellence at NCAN’s 23rd annual national conference today in Pittsburgh.

The Executive Leadership Award of Excellence recognizes the dedication and hard work of an individual serving as a college access program’s executive director, president, or as a member of its board of trustees or directors.

Bob Obrohta founded the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, an NCAN member organization based in Nashville, in 2010 and has served as its executive director ever since. The organization’s mission is to increase the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential and foster a college-going culture across the state.

TCASN was initially funded by a Lumina Foundation for Education grant from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and in its second year, it received Race to the Top funds. As a result of Bob’s hard work and that of his staff, the organization is now sustained through philanthropic and other funding streams.

During his time at TCASN, Bob has supervised several successful programs, such as the TalentED Project, which helps college access professionals and the students they serve find colleges and universities that are a good academic, financial, and social fit. In 2012, he helped pilot a math intervention program in four rural counties in East Tennessee that helped students with low ACT math scores complete college remedial math courses while still in high school. Today, that program, now known as SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support), is offered to thousands of Tennessee high school students.

Beyond TCASN, Bob has provided leadership on grant funding, professional development, and advocacy to other individuals and organizations within the college access profession. His efforts have helped support initiatives that have distributed almost $2 million in grants, trained thousands of college access professionals, and helped more than 60,000 students and families.

Prior to establishing TCASN, Bob founded Oasis College Connection, the first college counseling center focused on supporting low-income and first-generation students in Middle Tennessee. Throughout his career in the higher education access field, some of the other programs and organizations Bob has worked with include Upward Bound at Beloit College, GEAR UP at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and the Ayers Foundation.

For the 2018 Executive Leadership Award of Excellence, Bob’s organization will receive $1,000 in support of a new, one-time scholarship to be made in his honor. The award was presented by Jamie Sears, NCAN board member and head of Community Affairs & Corporate Responsibility at UBS Americas. Past winners of this award include: 

  • 2017: Tim Herron, President, Degrees of Change, Tacoma, WA

  • 2016: Austin Buchan, Executive Director, College Forward, Austin, TX

  • 2015: Kim Mazzuca, 10,000 Degrees, San Rafael, CA

  • 2014: Brandy Johnson, Michigan College Access Network, Lansing, MI

  • 2013: Faith A. Sandler, Executive Director, Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, St. Louis, MO

  • 2012: Nicole Farmer Hurd, Ph.D., Founder & Executive Director, College Advising Corps, Chapel Hill, NC

  • 2011: Bonnie Sutton, Executive Director, Access College Foundation, Norfolk, VA

  • 2010: Nancy Leopold, Executive Director, CollegeTracks, Bethesda, MD

  • 2009: Monica Montenegro, Executive Director, East Bay Consortium / California Student Opportunity Assistance Program, Oakland, CA

  • 2008: Virginia "Ginny" Donohue, Executive Director, On Point for College, Syracuse, NY

  • 2007: Andrea Cockrun, Chief Executive Officer, The Fulfillment Fund, Los Angeles, CA

Seeking Input to Inform our Higher Education Equity Dashboard

The Tennessee College Access and Success Network is committed to addressing barriers for underrepresented students, including students of color, low-income, first-generation college-goers, and undocumented students, in accessing and completing college. With funding from Conexión Américas and the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, TCASN is working to increase the number of Tennesseans completing postsecondary education by creating an online dashboard that looks at Tennessee's higher education system through an equity lens. 

TCASN hopes that this project will further the ability of educators and policy makers to identify and shine spotlights on equity gaps in order to lead to the refinement of state and institutional policies to address gaps and improve student outcomes. Additionally, this public dashboard will equip advocates to use data to make a greater impact on their advocacy strategies.  Our dashboard will identify equity gaps, specifically looking at how students of color and low-income students are accessing and succeeding in postsecondary institutions in Tennessee. 

We are asking our partners to help us identify what data we can gather that would make this tool useful not only to policy makers but to educators, students, and families as well. Please take a few minutes to complete this form to share your ideas and insights for this dashboard. We want to know what information would be helpful to you and those in your communities and plan to incorporate your feedback in this project. 

Tennessee Is Proving FAFSA Completion Leads To A College-Going Culture

This piece by Bob Obrohta in collaboration with the Reach Higher Initiative originally appeared in Forbes

As communities seek to raise their rates of educational attainment, boosting FAFSA—the Free Application for Federal Student Aid—completion is a proven strategy for increasing college-going among recent high school graduates.

The National College Access Network (NCAN) created the FormYourFuture FAFSA Tracker, which displays both completion and the percent change over years. Tennessee and Louisiana are virtually tied as the top states in the country in the number of high school seniors completing the FAFSA.  And the two states took different paths to get there. In 2018, Louisiana linked FAFSA completion to high school graduation, and it is now a requirement for a high school diploma. Louisiana’s completion rate is 77% - 27% higher than the previous year.

Tennessee does not require students to complete the FAFSA in order to graduate. In fact, Tennessee has consistently had some of the highest FAFSA completion rates in the country for over a decade. This has been highly impacted by the work of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN). In Tennessee, our successes can be traced back to Governor Bredesen signing the state’s Hope Scholarship into law in 2003. Additionally, Tennessee’s senior U.S. Senator, Lamar Alexander, has been a champion of FAFSA completion and simplification from the moment he entered Congress in 2002. I doubt there is anyone in Tennessee that hasn’t seen him take a hard copy of the FAFSA, hold it up high, and then drop it to the floor, unraveling its ridiculous length.

Tennessee’s rise to the top of the FAFSA completion charts was grassroots in nature, and stems from providing students and families with exposure to educational opportunity—the linchpin being Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise scholarship which guarantees free community college tuition for most of Tennessee’s students. With the Tennessee Promise, a state that was already deeply invested in building a college-going culture around FAFSA completion now had a rallying point.

All states have the ability to replicate the accomplishments of Louisiana and Tennessee. And these five factors are essential to our success in Tennessee:

  1. Early FAFSA Filing Deadlines: The Tennessee Promise has a number of application steps, including completion of the FAFSA in early February. The early filing deadline motivates students to prioritize completing the form. And, due to recent federal changes making it possible for families to use prior year information, the FAFSA is now available in October. This early access and Tennessee Promise’s February submission requirement launch Tennessee to the top of completion list early in the financial aid cycle.
  2. Outreach Specialists: Tennessee’s student aid agency, the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, employs area outreach specialists who work in every county across the state providing students and families with financial aid workshops, information on grants, scholarships, loans, and FAFSA technical assistance. Additionally, they provide technical support through a call center to help students and families who have questions while filling out the form.
  3. Professional Training: Completing a FAFSA and interpreting aid awards is highly technical. But it’s more than that. In order to help students and families fill out the forms, you often have to ask them personal details they may not want to share. For example, if a student has been “couch surfing,” and is homeless, anyone helping that student complete the FAFSA would need to create an environment and rapport where the student is willing to share that sensitive information. Here at the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN), we provide training to educators and college access experts on all aspects of college affordability including helping students whose family history may not be accurately reflected in the FAFSA questions.
  4. Statewide Events: The Tennessee Higher Education Commission helps build excitement around the college-going process through its Path to College Events, which includes FAFSA Frenzy Day. During Tennessee FAFSA Frenzy Day, volunteers from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, nonprofits, and college financial aid counselors visit public high schools to help students and families complete the FAFSA. 
  5. Communication and Data: Consistent communication with high school educators and counselors is essential for FAFSA completion. During the FAFSA season, Tennessee high schools are updated on their current rate of FAFSA completion, comparing their rates not only to previous years but to other high schools. Counselors can view which students have not yet completed the form on a weekly basis. Access to this type of real-time, data-driven feedback helps drive a focus on FAFSA completion that spans months, rather than a single event offered at each high school.

Increasing educational attainment is a nationwide issue. By incentivizing FAFSA completion through state policy and providing key supports for implementation, we can better help students continue their education and become citizens who can fully contribute to our society.

TCASN Receives a Statewide Advocacy Grant from Conexión Américas

The Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN) is one of seven organizations to receive a statewide advocacy grant from Conexión Américas, the lead organization of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition. The awarded grants are designed to advance the capacity of partner organizations across the state to become leading voices in education advocacy efforts, especially on behalf of communities and students of color. TCASN will use this funding to deepen our work of increasing the number of Tennesseans completing postsecondary education by creating an online dashboard to inform state policy makers of issues surrounding equity in higher education in the 2018–2019 legislative session. 

TN College Access and Success Network Announces New Board Members

The Tennessee College Access and Success Network is pleased to announce the addition of five new members to its Board of Directors: Tayo Atanda, Kathleen Brock, Representative Joe Pitts, Maggie Snyder, and Don Yu. The Board provides leadership for carrying out the TCASN’s mission to remove barriers to higher education for all and foster a college-going culture among underrepresented populations. Wanda Lyle, Managing Director, General Manager of UBS Business Solution Center – Nashville, currently serves as chair of the 2017-2018 Board of Directors.

Tayo Atanda, an attorney of Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis' alcohol beverage law team, advises manufacturers, distributors and retailers of liquor, beer, and wine throughout the state of Tennessee. Tayo played a key role in assisting more than 250 local and national grocery stores when legislation permitting the sale of wine in Tennessee grocery stores took effect in 2016. His experience includes beer, liquor, dance and catering licensing for restaurants, hotels, bars, clubs and resorts throughout Tennessee. Tayo also assists start-ups and emerging companies in LLC formation, reviewing and drafting and evaluating contracts, non-compete agreements and non-disclosure agreements.

Kathleen Brock, Ed.D., is the Director of Strategic Policy in the Office of Strategy and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. In this role, Katie supports achievement of the president’s strategic vision by coordinating and facilitating long-range planning, strategy and policy development, and strategic implementation among academic and administrative units to advance major institutional priorities. She works closely with university and system leaders, faculty leaders, policymakers, national thought leaders, foundations, and other key partners and stakeholders. Katie also oversees the coordination of cross-institutional networks and projects focused on advancing policy solutions on a variety of topics including postsecondary preparation, pathways, affordability, and productivity.

Katie served on the leadership team of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as the Associate Executive Director of the Office of P-16 Initiatives. In this role she designed and coordinated the state’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP), College Access Challenge, College Access and Success Network, and Lumina Foundation for Education’s Know How to Go and Latino Student Success grant programs. Prior to her work in Tennessee, Katie was a legislative aide to Representatives on the Massachusetts House Higher Education Committee and an advancement officer at Colgate University. Katie holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Colgate University and a Master’s degree in international education policy and management from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, and doctorate of education from the University of Tennessee.  

TN State Representative Joe Pitts, a native of Clarksville, Tennessee, is in his sixth term serving the people of House District 67 in the Tennessee House of Representatives. He is a proud 1976 graduate of Northwest High School and a 1980 graduate of Austin Peay State University. He has also completed post graduate work at the University of Georgia and the University of Virginia. His passion is to support a quality education for every citizen of Tennessee, help veterans and their families, and provide his constituents with the best service possible. Outside his service in the Tennessee General Assembly, Joe is Vice President of Planters Bank in Clarksville. Joe and his wife, Cynthia, have five children, and eight grandchildren.

Maggie Snyder is a program officer with ECMC Foundation. She supports the career readiness portfolio, which invests in programs that are committed to connecting adults with limited or no education beyond high school to accredited, postsecondary career pathways that allow for economic mobility and family-sustaining wages. She is also a member of the steering committee for the Los Angeles chapter of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and volunteers as a tutor at the Singleton Adult Literacy Center at the Los Angeles Public Library. 

Maggie earned her master's in public policy with a focus on K-16 education from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education and Human Development. While at Vanderbilt, Maggie assisted with the implementation of a longitudinal literacy research study sponsored by the National Center for Special Education Research. As a graduate assistant at the Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN), she produced original content and assessments for two online courses geared toward college access professionals and high school students. She also conducted research and analysis projects related to the development of a technological tool to decrease college-student undermatching. Previously, Maggie was an admissions counselor at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. She holds a BA in sociology/anthropology from Denison University.

Don Yu is the Chief Operating Officer of Reach Higher, former First Lady Michelle Obama's initiative to inspire every student in America to take charge of their future by completing their education past high school, whether at a professional training program, a community college, or a four-year college or university. Reach Higher seeks to celebrate education, change the national conversation, and reach students directly where they are and give them a space to create content while also navigating the college-going process. With partners in the business, philanthropic, media, and education realm, Reach Higher stretches across the country to inspire students and give them the tools they need to reach higher for college.

Prior to joining Civic Nation, Don served as the Chief of Transformation at the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Education and as special advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He is a former teacher and school district attorney. Don received his B.A. and M.A. from Columbia University and a J.D. from Northwestern University.

New report highlights significant college access issues for Nashville

Report Marks First Step in Developing a Citywide Campaign to Increase College Completion

Sixty percent of jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet, according to a new study released today, only 24 percent of Nashville’s public high school graduates are earning a degree within six years (from either a two- or four-year college). The city’s unprecedented growth, which demands a better educated and more skilled workforce, is at the heart of a new report by the Nashville Public Education Foundation in partnership with The Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN). The report, Bridge to Completion: A Framework for Developing Nashville’s Campaign for College Success, takes a deep-dive look into the challenges and barriers high school and college students face and ideas for a community effort that could bring Nashville’s college-going and college-completion rates up to at least the national average.

The report serves as a starting point to bring the community together behind better organized and resourced efforts that could push college-completion rates from 24 to 40 percent over the next several years.

The report is the first time there has been such a comprehensive and contextualized look at the postsecondary landscape in Nashville. It is also unique in the sense that it follows entire student cohorts and provides a detailed, school-by-school analysis. Combining analysis of National Student Clearinghouse data along with interviews of college counselors, students and staff at higher-education institutions allowed researchers to pinpoint more specific barriers for why students aren’t going to or staying in college, such as affordability, equity, transitional supports from high school to college, loan aversion, and family responsibilities.

“This report weaves together a great deal of data to tell the most complete story about what happens to our students after high school. Our hope is that it will spur a larger community conversation about what we need to do to improve the chances our high schoolers go on to and complete college,” said NPEF President and CEO Shannon Hunt. “In the world we live in today, success of our public schools cannot be high school graduation alone; but rather, our measuring stick should be college completion. And certainly, our public school graduates should have the same chance for college success as their peers nationwide.”

The Bridge to Completion research centers on the analysis of multiple data sets, including comparing similar schools and other large, urban districts as well as national data, and interviewing 50-plus professionals representing the school district, community-based organizations, higher education and nationally recognized college access. The research also looked at multilevel analyses of both the district and individual high schools. “Our goal was to provide a report that shines a light on the great work that is happening across this city and identifies opportunities to help more students achieve their dreams,” said TCASN Executive Director Bob Obrohta.

The report urges action in five key areas:

  • Provide equitable access to high-quality, student-centered college counseling by lowering student-to-counselor ratios and increasing the reach of community-based college access and support services. In Nashville, average student-to-counselor ratios are 450:1, whereas national best practices indicate it should be closer to 150:1. In addition, only one of MNPS’ 18 high schools has a full-time, dedicated MNPS college adviser.
  • Ensure more students are attending higher-education institutions where they have a likelihood of completing. The research reveals concerns about success rates in some of our two-year colleges and whether students are attending colleges that are the best fit for them.
  • Increase the level of student support services at local community colleges, specifically looking to address food insecurity and transportation.
  • Focus affordability efforts to assist students in meeting the increasing costs of attending college, including increasing dual-enrollment opportunities, creating an emergency fund for community college students and exploring first-dollar scholarships.
  • Launch a coordinated effort to combat “summer melt” – the phenomenon whereby nearly a quarter of our students who plan to go to college don’t end up enrolling. This includes making the hand-off to college part of the high school experience.

Already, the issue of college access and success is gathering community momentum. First Tennessee Bank, one of the area’s largest banks and employers, has committed $250,000 to the NPEF over the next two years, the vast majority of which will help jump-start efforts to bring the community together around some of these ideas.

“We live in a great and thriving city with so much going for it. But if we want to maintain that vibrancy, it is absolutely critical that more of our students go on to and complete some level of postsecondary,” said Carol Yochem, president of First Tennessee Bank’s Middle Tennessee region. “We are deeply committed to advancing some of the recommendations in this report and hope others in the business and philanthropic community will join us.”

To read the full report, visit http://nashvillepef.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/012918-NPEF-CollegeReport.pdf.

TCASN Receives Two Advocacy Grants from the National College Access Network

The Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN) is thrilled to announce that we have received one federal policy advocacy grant and one state policy advocacy grant from the National College Access Network (NCAN), each in the amount of $40,000 over a two-year period.

Throughout 2018-2019, our federal efforts in this project will focus on FAFSA simplification, a more efficient Federal Work-Study program, and protecting the Pell Grant. At the state level, we will advocate for the needs of transfer students and raise awareness around the importance of need-based aid. 

"We are thrilled by the opportunity to work alongside our members during this critical time in higher education policy," says Kim Cook, NCAN's Executive Director. "Conversations around the most important issues facing our students are ramping up, and we look forward to contributing to this dialogue by amplifying the student voice."  

The grants are funded by a new $2.5 million commitment to NCAN from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. TCASN looks forward to working alongside the 16 other sub-grantees throughout the next two years.

It’s Not Too Early: College Access in Middle School

TCASN was excited to present at the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE)’s LEAD Conference on October 17, 2017 alongside our colleagues from the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation at Lipscomb University and the TDOE. College access in middle school is a topic that is simultaneously talked about constantly and not talked about enough. We hear over and over that college access and success starts early – in kindergarten, if not before – but we don’t always hear about strategies and practices that schools and districts can implement in order to facilitate more students going on to some form of postsecondary once they graduate from high school. The goals of our session were to share some of the recommendations TDOE has identified for how schools and districts can create more seamless pathways to postsecondary in middle school and to provide some concrete strategies and practices from across the state that others are using to do exactly this. Our session participants had multiple opportunities to share and brainstorm with one another on how college access in middle school can be implemented in their communities, and it was wonderful to see so many conversations sparked around the room!

Session materials and resources shared are available on the Ayers Institute’s eduTOOLBOX resource for session participants who want to refer back or those who were unable to attend but want to check out some resources on this topic.

How Tennessee Promise is tied to the Pell Grant and what it means for higher education

In the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life,"George Bailey tries to keep the Bailey Savings and Loan afloat by pleading with his customers to understand how they are all connected: “You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house, right next to yours, and a hundred others.”

If I can be so bold as to channel Jimmy Stewart for a moment, I’d like our nation’s policy leaders to understand how financial aid is all connected. Cutting the Pell Grant for low-income students will cause strain to the Tennessee Promise scholarship and other similar scholarship programs across the country. 

As the value of the Pell grant goes down, the cost of a last-dollar scholarship (like Tennessee Promise) equally goes up. For example, if a student’s Pell grant goes down by $100, their Tennessee Promise scholarship goes up by $100. This means that more students will be tapping into the Promise fund. Original calculations of how many students would be eligible for scholarship dollars will need to be adjusted as more and more students become eligible.

The Pell Grant is a federal grant that gives low-income students the opportunity to attend college. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the Pell Grants will help over 7.5 million students continue their education after high school this year. The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, points out that Pell now covers less than 30 percent of the cost of attendance for an undergraduate college — its lowest purchasing power in 40 years. 

Without action from the United States Congress, Pell will no longer rise with inflation. This will make the award weaker. The current House budget recommendation is to keep Pell funding flat for the next 10 years. This, in essence, is a cut.

The buying power of Pell will continue to recede over time. In 10 years, TICAS predicts the grant will cover only one-fifth of college costs. This change means fewer students will be able to afford earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college, resulting in more students enrolling in community colleges, in turn, resulting in more students leveraging Promise dollars.

More scholarships will need to be offered, and the average cost of those scholarships will need to increase. The result will strain Promise resources and, quite possibly, the Promise reserve fund.

This means that not only will low-income families be affected by cutting Pell, but middle income families that rely on Tennessee Promise and similar scholarships will eventually be affected. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the cost of higher education (and I could write a thousand additional words on the fairness of higher education affordability) the fact of the matter is opportunity for economic security is directly linked to having a college degree or certificate.

Higher education gives everyone an opportunity. When we limit opportunities, we limit our citizens from being able to contribute to the greater good of our community and country.

Congress should continue to show their bipartisan support of students (as they always have) and continue to allow the Pell Grant to adjust based on inflation.  As George Bailey says in his closing argument defending the old Savings and Loan, “Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.”

This op-ed was authored by Bob Obrohta, Executive Director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, and was originally published in the Tennessean on August 17, 2017.