Education Policy

Free College Finds Success in Tennessee

Tuition-free attendance in Tennessee is raising college and full-time enrollment and speeding the awarding of degrees. Those are the outcomes shared with the state's Board of Regents regarding the first class of "Tennessee Promise" students, who entered college in the fall of 2015 and have gone through four semesters since then.

The program gives students up to five semesters of tuition-free attendance at a community college or college of applied technology.

According to the organization, Campaign for Free College Tuition, legislative proposals to make college free have surfaced in a number of other states. Oregon followed Tennessee in setting up a Promise program. The state of New York has made its public institutions tuition-free through a scholarship program for students in families earning less than $125,000. Other states, such as Kentucky and Arkansas, are limiting tuition to specific programs of study that match up with state workforce goals.

In Tennessee, besides coverage of tuition, Promise provides mentoring to help guide high schoolers through the college application and enrollment process and "last-dollar" scholarships to pay for the costs of tuition and mandatory fees not covered by federal Pell Grants and state aid programs.

To qualify, applicants must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), enroll in college the fall semester immediately following their high school graduation, perform eight hours of community service, register for at least 12 credit hours per semester and maintain a 2.0 grade point average.

A total of 13,287 Promise students enrolled in the state's 13 community colleges in the fall of 2015. That represents nearly three-quarters (73.5 percent) of recent high school grads entering as first-time freshmen that fall for those schools. Of the Promise students, six in 10 were still in college a year later compared to four in 10 (41 percent) of non-Promise students.

After undertaking two years of schools, 56 percent of the first class of Promise students are either still enrolled, have earned a college credential or have transferred to a four-year university. That compares to 39 percent of their peers, first-time freshmen at community colleges who didn't take part in the program. That's a 17 percentage point difference.

After those first two years of school, 39 percent of the original Promise students were still enrolled in community college; another 14.5 percent had earned a degree or certificate; and 3 percent had transferred to a university. Among their non-Promise peers, 30.5 percent were still enrolled; 5 percent had earned a degree or certificate; and 3 percent had transferred.

Among Promise students who entered in fall 2015 and were still enrolled in spring 2017, 16 percent had earned 60 or more hours of college credit — the number needed for getting an associate degree — and 42 percent had earned 48 to 59 hours, "putting them within striking distance of a degree," said Russ Deaton, the board's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and student success.

Deaton said additional data for the first Promise class will be released in January after the students complete their fifth and final semester of eligibility this fall.

"These numbers are the first evidence that Tennessee Promise is doing exactly what Governor [Bill] Haslam and the General Assembly designed — getting more students into college, including students who might not otherwise be able attend, and helping them succeed once they get here," said Chancellor Flora Tydings in a prepared statement.

Tydings encouraged participating colleges to contact their Promise students nearing the end of their eligibility to urge them to finish their work toward an associate degree or certificate this fall if possible. "These students are within sight of completion and we want them to cross the finish line," she said. "From there, they may choose to continue their studies at a four-year school, or enter the workforce with their new credential. Whichever route they choose, we want them to succeed."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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