Q&A: Cooke Scholar Isa Adney on America's College Promise

isa_adney-resized-600.jpgTonight President Obama will give the State of the Union address at 9:00 p.m. ET. One of his projected hot-button issues is education, including the America’s College Promise plan which he unveiled on January 9. In preparation for tonight’s address, we asked 2007 Undergraduate Transfer Scholar Isa Adney a few questions about community college, the President’s plan for providing two years free for select students, and why non-community college students or graduates should pay attention.

After transferring from Seminole State College to Stetson University in 2007 and graduating in 2009, Isa worked at a two-year institution before starting her current full-time career as a speaker, author, host, and consultant advocating for community college students. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Florida College System Foundation and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Forbes, and U.S. News & World Report, among others. Read more about Isa and her work by visiting isaadney.com/.

Isa, why should we care about community colleges and their students?

To me, we all succeed when we all succeed. Almost half of all undergraduates are currently at community colleges, and community colleges train people for professions that so many of us benefit from in ​our daily lives. From the people who fix our cars to the people who rush to help us in an ambulance after a 911 call, these people are being trained at community ​colleges and ​are a crucial part of our society. Not to mention the open access nature of community college, which particularly makes it a very crucial ingredient to our meritocratic American Dream ideals.

What about those who have never attended a community college?

​I think community colleges enrich the community that they’re in, and almost every person in our country is within driving distance of a community college. Making community college free could provide the opportunity for more students to train for jobs that could enhance the community for everyone. And, deep down, I have a feeling that almost anyone can imagine someone in their circle of family and friends who would really benefit from the opportunity of free community college.

There is often a stigma around community colleges that calls into question the quality of both the institution and its students. Did you witness the opposite when you were in school?

​Like any stereotype, those on the other side often don’t have the luxury of ignoring it. It sits there and threatens to eat away at you. There was a point, sitting in the waiting room in the advising office to get my first-semester schedule, where that stigma hurt. But then, an advisor at Seminole State called my name and helped me pick out my schedule. I had a professor meet with me and tell me what community college could help me become. He walked me to the door of the honors director who then helped me apply and get into the honors program there. What I found there was a community of people who changed my life. I also found incredibly intelligent and challenging professors who put all their energy into teaching, as well as hard-working and intelligent students who weren’t at community college because they weren’t “smart” enough for another school – it was usually because they weren’t “rich” enough, in either financial or social capital.​

​​What does the President’s recent plan to provide two years of free community college for certain students mean to you?

​To me it means the American Dream is still alive. It means ​that those students who wonder if college is really for them have another obstacle removed, another burden lifted, and, most importantly, it creates a space where they can reach their potential and contribute their best talents and skills to the rest of us.

What are some positives and negatives you can foresee with the plan?

​I’m not a policy expert so I don’t want to weigh in on things I really don’t have expertise in. All I can say is that of course everyone knows that “free” is not a magic wand that suddenly makes cost disappear – it’s ​shifting who pays. It’s an investment in the future, in future students, in future lives, in future families. I think it could be a very good investment. Of course it’s crucial to remember that for some students the dropout problem isn’t just because of finances – it’s that coupled with a lack of motivation, direction, and support. I think supporting students financially would be a huge positive and burden lifted; I’m really impressed with how Tennessee has taken the lead in this and that they’ve coupled the program with mentorship. I’m sure a lot can be learned from how they progress and what they learn.

If you could serve as an adviser for America’s College Promise, what would be your main focus going forward?

Finding ways to help students pursue a degree that is in line with both their dreams and economic need so that they have the motivation to persist and succeed, and that they are able to blaze paths that will make the free community college a good investment.