Southwest Tennessee Community College President Dr. Tracy D. Hall details why she says the college’s biggest competitor for students is “the streets.”

by Dr. Tracy D. Hall — When I first arrived in Memphis, I would drive around some of the neighborhoods to get a sense of the city, get a tactile feel for its gifts, challenges, opportunities and people.

After all, community colleges are not just institutions of higher learning, but also transformation hubs. They are where dreams are discovered, nurtured and realized.

I still ride through the city on occasion, and what I oftentimes see continues to fuel my resolve to make known the rich opportunity of tuition-free college. I see young men and women who seem to need a push or a glimpse of the opportunities that abound in college; the potential to transform the trajectory of their lives.

The allure of the streets, however, is powerful.

Fast cash to meet the most basic and persistent life needs breeds choices that continue to keep them from taking advantage of a tuition-free education. Our biggest competitors for students at Southwest Tennessee Community College are not other institutions of higher learning. It is the streets.

These at-promise young people are the key to a future in Memphis that is brighter than even I can imagine. They are my why. They are a rich, untapped resource that we must reach, teach, inspire and empower.

I hear all too often how thousands of jobs go unfilled in Memphis each day and how the current workforce cannot meet industry needs. I believe we have current and future employees walking the streets of Memphis every day.

One of my most depressing days since my arrival in Memphis was when I visited Shelby County Juvenile Court and saw classrooms full of African-American boys. I asked them what they wanted to be. Answers ranged from engineers to athletes. I couldn’t help but to think about what happened in their lives that caused them to end up in juvenile detention. I believe these young men and so many others are redeemable.

Community colleges were founded to serve the undereducated, undertrained and unsure. At Southwest, we are not only prepared to help those who need and want to upskill and pursue academic goals to do so, but also are keenly experienced at it and wholly dedicated to it.

Our students come from every background you can imagine and 96 percent of them live, work and raise families in Shelby County.

Students come to us with a history of systemic and institutional barriers that have been placed in their paths from birth.

Educational, family, religious, and political institutions that were supposed to have their best interests at heart have failed them. They arrive at our doors at Southwest broken, under-resourced, underprepared and anxious.

But, they arrive.

We owe it to them to see them. We owe it to them to see their hopes and dreams, strengths and lived experiences. We owe it to them to teach, guide, and to set high, yet reasonable expectations.

We owe it to them to provide the best possible educational experience and environment that will enable them to get that ticket out of poverty and into the middle class or higher.

At Southwest, we meet students where they are, how they are. And we are there to take a holistic approach to their education, with the sole purpose of empowering them to overcome their academic, socioeconomic and emotional challenges and transform their lives through credential attainment.

When a student persists to completion of a certificate or degree, their annual earning potential increases by $5,900 and $11,000, respectively. Such financial gains are transformative. They fuel upward social mobility for our students and empower them to transcend poverty through fulfilling careers and continued education. After all, this is our mission at Southwest.

Unfortunately, there are too many who do not arrive, do not strive and do not achieve these outcomes; perhaps because the streets are a tempting, but short-term remedy. However, an education is a long-term cure that can change the trajectory of their lives and that of their families.

At Southwest, we are committed to helping them achieve their dreams.