Southern Appalachia Educational Opportunity Center at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga: 2009-10
Total participants served: 1,052
College-ready participants served: 921
Number enrolled in a postsecondary education: 491
Number in continuing education: 29
Total successful outcomes: 520 or 50 percent of participants
Source: U.S. Department of Education
• Call 423-425-1702 or visit www.utc.edu/outreach/educationalopportunitycenter.
The Educational Opportunity Center provides counseling and information on college admissions to adults who want to enter or continue a program of higher education. The goal is to increase the number of adult participants who enroll in postsecondary education institutions.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
After Katrina Piatt graduated from high school almost 20 years ago, she went to college a couple of times, but always dropped out.
"I've made a lot of bad life choices," she said, without saying more.
But several years ago she decided she had to turn things around.
"It was the realization that I wasn't getting younger," she said. "I was always going to have the same kinds of jobs, always be in the same economic level, and I wanted to change that for myself."
On Thursday, Piatt, 37, was in the offices of the Southern Appalachia Educational Opportunity Center on McCallie Avenue, looking up financial aid information and applying for every scholarship she could.
After finishing her associate degree at Chattanooga State Community College this year, she's ready to start at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as a biology student.
The Educational Opportunity Center at UTC is one of 126 in the country. The goal of the program, established in 1972 and funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is to help adults go to college and get a degree.
The Chattanooga office, which opened in 1998, received a $263,000 grant last year that pays mostly for salaries and benefits for a five-person staff. The office serves about 1,000 people.
Participants get one-on-one advising from counselors who often went through difficult times themselves. They help prospective students apply for college, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and learn about the differences between public and for-profit colleges, about salaries and demand for different professions.
"We try to teach them to be good consumers of education and how to balance the things that you love but also be able to provide for your family," said Cathy Brown, student support coordinator.
This year, the program has a special focus on veterans, young adults who have aged out of the foster care system and the homeless, said Cynthia Long, director of the Chattanooga program which serves 11 surrounding counties.
From President Barack Obama to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, increasing the number of people with a higher education degree has become a top priority for leaders across the country.
In Tennessee, 32 percent of the state's nearly 3.4 million adults ages 25 to 64 have at least a two-year-degree, lower than the national average of 38 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college.
Nationwide, the goal is for 60 percent of adults to hold either a certificate or college degree by 2025.
One way to accomplish that is to focus on adults who have some college education but never finished, according to Lumina. In 2010, more than 732,000 Tennessee adults, about 22 percent of the adult population, had gone to college but didn't have a two- or four-year degree.
About 70 percent of the Southern Appalachia Educational Opportunity Center participants who enroll in college go to a two-year school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Chattanooga State doesn't track how many students enroll in a four-year college after participating in the center's program, but school officials said they've found that students who are the first in their families to go to college especially benefit from the resources and counseling the center provides.
"The community is fortunate to have the level of support provided by the [Educational Opportunity Center] through the U.S. Department of Education funding," said Eva Lewis, associate vice president of institutional effectiveness and research at Chattanooga State.
One of the biggest challenges for the Educational Opportunity Center is reaching out to potential participants, Long said, and that's especially true with its focus this year.
Military personnel move a lot, and homeless youths often don't have telephone or Internet access. Center officials still are trying to figure out how to find people who aged out of the foster care system.
There is no age limit for the program, and anyone who doesn't have a four-year college degree can qualify for the center's services. And Long said the center also helps people enroll in programs to get their high school diplomas or the equivalent so they can be ready for college.
Long failed at college the first time she tried right out of high school. She had good grades and got a partial scholarship to a private university. She stayed there for 21/2 years, but given her family income level, she now sees that it would have been better for her to start at a public college. She graduated with a psychology degree at age 37 from UTC.
On Thursday, Piatt was glad to learn that she received the full Pell grant amount of $5,550 and the HOPE scholarship. She also received extra money for applying early, something she wouldn't have known to do if it wasn't for her adviser at the Educational Opportunity Center.
"By the time you are an adult, it's easy to convince yourself you can't make it," she said. "They [advisers] make sure you get everything in on time, and they are just as excited to see you graduate."
Dominique Pruitt has tried to go back to school since 2010 but was told her previous school loans were in default. The 25-year-old, who is pregnant, met employees at the Opportunity Center last week during a prenatal class at the health department. She scheduled an appointment for this week, and the center was able to get her back in school the same day. It turns out she was no longer in default, and she starts in September at Chattanooga State. She wants to become a human services specialist because she likes to help people, she said.
"It's a miracle," she said, as she left the office.