published Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Detour to technical path

Lottery backs skill training for lower-income groups

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    Staff photo by Danielle Moore/Chattanooga Times Free Press Ben Cairns, left, helps fellow student Tenisa Townsend with a computer-building project during a technology class at Chattanooga State Wednesday morning. Both are recipients of the Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant scholarship, which boasts a retention rate of more than 90 percent.

A few months before she started splicing wires and dissecting computer modems in a lab at Chattanooga State, Tenisa Townsend thought she had seen the last of her second chances.

Having been laid off last January from her job packing goods and tweaking machinery for a local manufacturer, the 45-year-old Ms. Townsend felt humiliated as she pushed her resume on strangers and made cold calls on jobs for the first time in 20 years.

“I couldn’t even get an interview. Nobody wants to talk to you face to face,” Ms. Townsend said. “My only income was unemployment, and I was struggling.”

But things are looking up. Having received a full-tuition scholarship — the Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, one the state’s lesser-known lottery programs — she now attends the Tennessee Technology Center at Chattanooga State Community College. Spending six hours a day hunched over computers and workbooks, she makes progress toward her certification as a computer technician.

Like most students in her shoes — laid off of poor with an opportunity for a free education — she is dedicated to finishing her technical certificate and starting over.

“I haven’t paid anything out of pocket. Everything has been taken care of,” she said. “All they require of me is my time.”

The state’s Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant, which provides up to $2,000 for any Tennessee resident to pursue a technical degree at one of the state’s 27 technology centers, is an unlikely gem among lottery scholarship programs, officials say.

“These students are getting out with jobs that pay $30,000 to $40,000,” said David Wright, associate executive director of policy, planning and research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “This is the success story of the lottery scholarship programs.”

If the Tennessee HOPE scholarship skews toward a upper-middle-class white population, the Wilder-Naifeh grant is the polar opposite.

Nearly 70 percent of Wilder-Naifeh recipients come from families that earn less than $24,000 a year, according to a new study by THEC, and 45 percent of those families take in less than $12,000 annually.

“These training programs often result in life-changing placement in jobs for people who come from very-low-income backgrounds,” Mr. Wright said.

Compared to the HOPE program, which has 17 percent minority students, the Wilder-Naifeh program enrolls 23 percent minority students, most of whom are over age 25.

Another important difference between the Wilder-Naifeh and HOPE: Most students with Wilder-Naifeh hold onto their scholarships and graduate, according to the THEC study.

Seventy-four percent of students with the Wilder-Naifeh grant graduate from their technical degree programs, documents show. In comparison, only 48 percent of students who begin college with the HOPE scholarship graduate in five years, THEC records show, and just 31 percent do so with their scholarship intact.

“It is a good program,” said James King, vice chancellor of the Technology Centers with the Tennessee Board of Regents, of the Wilder-Naifeh grant. “When you help alleviate some of the financial difficulty, I think it improves the college completion rate.”

Ben Cairnes, a 26-year-old Bryan College graduate who couldn’t find a job with his degree in youth ministry, said he would have been forced to default on his student loans if he hadn’t been given the Wilder-Naifeh grant to enroll in a Chattanooga State technical program.

“We teach ourselves, and it’s pretty relaxed,” said Mr. Cairnes, who is in his last semester of a year-long program. “We have people who know a lot and people who don’t even know how to e-mail. We help each other.”

A technical program usually takes about a year to 18 months, much less time than a two-year or four-year degree, but many say the brand of students receiving the Wilder-Naifeh grant do better at reaching their academic goals than younger HOPE scholarship recipients because they have tasted the fruits of not trying.

“A lot of them are in their mid-30s, looking for a second chance in life,” said Mike Mercer, a computer operations technology instructor at the Chattanooga State Technology Center. “They are serious about it because they have kids to take care of.”

Ms. Townsend said she dallied around when she was earning her two-year degree out of high school and graduated with a “C” average. Her parents were paying for college and an education, so a job seemed a given.

But when you are pushing 50 with no income and a house payment, losing a free ride to college looks more like financial suicide than carelessness, she said. She now has an “A” average in her classes and is a member of the National Technical Honor Society.

“You realize you have bills to pay,” she said. “It’s a maturity thing. You stay focused. It’s all on me. At some point in your life, you’ve got to do things on your own.”

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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