College & Workforce Readiness

Tenn. Free-Tuition Program Moves Focus to College Retention

By Caralee J. Adams — December 08, 2015 9 min read
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, speaks at Sullivan Central High School in Blountsville, Tenn., last year before a ceremonial signing of the bill that created the Tennessee Promise program. Considered a national model for President Obama's proposal of free community college, Tennessee's program is the first statewide effort to offer two years of free tuition to high school graduates.
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Tennessee has managed to get more students to community college this fall with its new Tennessee Promise program and its offer of free tuition.

The next hurdle is making sure they get through.

As the state enters the second year of Tennessee Promise, officials are fine-tuning the program—increasing parent involvement, extending mentoring to college freshmen, and requiring structured advising on campus, among other changes.

Community colleges also are hiring more support staff and trying new strategies to retain students, as officials await news of how this first crop of students fares by semester’s end.

“This has now got to be about student success. It can’t just be about enrollment,” said Mike Krause, the executive director of Tennessee Promise, the first statewide program of its kind to offer two years of free tuition to high school graduates who fulfill program requirements. The program has been held up as a model for the Obama administration’s national proposal for free community college.

“We are excited about the number of students enrolling,” Krause added, “but that doesn’t improve our workforce. The number of graduates will improve our workforce.”

Numbers and Next Steps

Once retention rates are in, the program can also be a “powerful window back to K-12" to let districts know the college-readiness levels of their students, Krause said.

More than 16,000 students took advantage of Tennessee Promise this fall, boosting first-time freshmen enrollment in state higher education programs by 10 percent overall compared with the previous year. The greatest increases were at the state’s community colleges, where the freshman class grew by nearly 25 percent over last year’s class.

But many four-year colleges and universities saw a decline. At the schools in the state university system, for instance, enrollment dropped by 4.6 percent this fall.

As the deadline closed in early November for next year’s class, interest in the program remained high, with 59,635 high school seniors applying—slightly more than last year’s 58,000 applicants.

In the state’s community colleges, about 14 percent of the Tennessee Promise students are African-American—close to the percentage of African-American students in the state’s overall community college population, which is 18 percent. The share of enrolled Tennessee Promise students in community colleges who are Hispanic is 4 percent, compared with 3 percent overall for community colleges. Program-wide, just over half of the enrolled scholarship students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify them for federal financial aid.

“In cohort one, we reached the kind of students we were hoping to reach,” Krause said of the demographics. “Tennessee Promise is about changing a culture and how students see their own future.”

Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship program, so students tapped into other aid, such as Pell Grants, first. The state program awarded an average of about $1,020 per student to fulfill the promise of covering tuition. To keep the state from leaving Pell money on the table, the program educated the entire graduating class on the availability of financial aid, Krause said. As a result, the total net cost to the state for the first year of the program $10.7 million, less than the original projections of $12 million.

As a high school senior last year, Josh Spurling had every intention of going to a four-year college. He applied to Tennessee Promise as a “back-up plan” and ended up going to nearby Roane State Community College in Oak Ridge. The money was just too good to pass up.

Spurling received three other scholarships, in addition to the Tennessee Promise aid, leaving him with a post-tuition surplus of $1,000 that he used to buy a laptop.

“It was just a better choice all around. I got more scholarships, and it was free,” said Spurling, who plans to transfer to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville to study marketing and international business and eventually go to graduate school. Spurling said he didn’t develop solid study skills in high school and starting at Roane State helped him ease into college life, while saving money living at home.

Power of Mentors

The architects of Tennessee Promise recognized that money isn’t the only barrier to college completion. Mentoring is a cornerstone of the program, and officials are tweaking how it’s carried out next year.

Last year, 7,400 volunteers were recruited to mentor students, and about half the mentors have signed up for another year, according to Krissy W. DeAlejandro, the executive director of the partnering nonprofit tnAchieves. To participate, mentors are trained for one hour, receive a 50-page manual, and are asked to meet with the students once a month.

With next year’s class, mentors won’t be paired with students until March, after tnAchieves staff members help the students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid process. Then the mentors will be asked to stay in touch with the students through their freshman semester in college.

The change will allow mentors to focus less on forms and deadlines, and more on building deep relationships with students as they transition to college, said DeAlejandro.

Last year, many mentors first received five or seven students in December, but had only two or three in the end. “It was a discouraging numbers game for the mentors,” said DeAlejandro. The hope is that by assigning students after completion of the FAFSA and later in the college process, fewer students will be dropping out of the program and leaving their mentors.

Cathy Hammon, who has volunteered for several years as a mentor with the tnAchieves program and now with Tennessee Promise, finds that once students start college, they often stop responding to her texts and lose touch. Yet sometimes she gets panicky calls when students encounter a problem that—without some guidance—could otherwise derail their education. They may have been sick, lost access to a car, or struggled in class and need help knowing how to approach a professor.

Hammon said she welcomes a mandatory mentor meeting in the fall.

“I feel it would be better if we were hanging with them tighter in that first semester,” said Hammon, who says mentors can offer neutral advice. “They can hear us in ways that they are not open to hearing their parents. The power dynamic of the relationship is different.”

Blake Monroe said that even though his parents went to college, it was helpful to have a younger mentor who had recently gone through the process work with him during his senior year.

“My mentor would keep me informed as much as possible about what was going on in a nice way. He came to my basketball games and offered to take me out to lunch to talk. ... [H]e was trying to communicate as a friend,” said Monroe, now a freshman at Jackson State Community College. “I definitely wanted to give back and do as much as I could for the program because [my mentor] had put that time into me.”

Students are required to complete eight hours of community service to qualify for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. To avoid any last-minute problem in complying, officials said, there will be a new emphasis on students’ completing the community service while they are still in school or with their mentors over the summer.

Moving forward, Krause said, the program will also communicate more with parents. In the first year, the idea was to work directly with students to get them ready for college, but officials discovered parents want to be more involved. The program will build in a transition period for that purpose.

Enrollments Up

The state “caught a break” with the influx of Tennessee Promise students coming on the heels of enrollment declines at many community colleges, said Krause. Many campuses had expanded as enrollment grew during the recession, and then began to contract when students returned to the workforce as the economy recovered in recent years.

“The timing was wonderful. We love this program. It does nothing but help us,” said Rebecca Ashford, the vice president of student affairs at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville. About 1,750 Tennessee Promise students brought campus enrollment up by 2 percent, which came after a dip of about 6 percent in the past few years.

To accommodate this fall’s increase, Pellissippi has offered more classes on its five campuses and redirected employees to provide support services. To improve retention, the campus has ramped up “intrusive” advising with a texting program to communicate with students and added an early-warning system for faculty members to connect students with resources, such as tutoring, as needed.

Ashford applauds the program’s requirement that students attend full time and the new plan for mentors to work with students once they are on the Pellissippi campus, where the overall graduation rate is 23 percent. The added structure and support will help the college meet its goals of improving completion, she said.

Promise students are coming to Volunteer State Community College conditioned to meet deadlines and in tune with expectations, said Emily C. Short, the assistant vice president for student services and enrollment management at the Gallatin-based school. She said retention efforts are being considered, such as a summer “bridge” program, online tutoring services, and more advisers to keep students on track.

Program Tweaks

Next year, Krause said, all Promise students will be required to take part in structured advising to prevent them from being overwhelmed in the course-selection process. Colleges are also being asked to continue to group students in cohorts so they can progress through their studies together, enhancing the likelihood of success.

Warren R. Nichols, the Tennessee board of regents’ vice chancellor for community colleges, said that although it’s too early to know if completion rates will rise, campuses are reporting positive results so far.

Promise students seem to be engaged in college activities, Nichols said, and colleges are providing services to handle the influx. The Promise students arrived as the state’s community colleges had just expanded a model to help students in need of developmental, or remedial, education by providing additional support to them as they take credit-bearing classes rather than blocking access to those courses until students’ skills catch up.

Krause said he is encouraged by the response to the program and the progress made in opening the doors of higher education for all.

“It was as much about the message as the money,” he said of the Tennessee Promise scholarships. “It’s about speaking to students with clarity about going to college.”

Monroe of Jackson State added: “I think it’s something that’s cool, and it gives students like a no-excuse thing when it comes to going to college ... There is no excuse for a student not to get a higher education.”

But the Tennessee Promise program is not without critics. Mamie Voigt, the director of policy research at the Institute of Higher Education Policy in Washington, noted that, while the program increases awareness about the opportunity of college, it doesn’t target those most in need, who still may need to work to pay for living expenses and books.

“The resources would be better directed toward low-income students and helping them cover the full cost of college,” she said, “rather than diverting resources to higher-income students who could afford to cover tuition even without the assistance.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2015 edition of Education Week as ‘Promise’ Program Boosts Enrollment at Tenn. Colleges


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