Keeping The Promise
Free Community College Advances in Tennessee as Applications Grow
Soon after being named to spearhead Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s drive to dramatically increase the number of college-degree holders in the state, Mike Krause started criss-crossing the Volunteer State.
His mission: to meet personally with presidents of two-year colleges as the state began a drive to recruit and enroll students in the Tennessee Promise program, which, starting next year, will offer students free tuition at the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology.
His message: Make the recruitment effort your own. Align it with the mission and demographics of each individual college. Tennessee is a richly diverse state and recruitment efforts needed to reflect that, Krause said.
“What will work in Memphis won’t work in rural Appalachia,” he said.
The do-your-own-thing approach appears to be paying dividends. With the Nov. 1 deadline for students to apply for the Tennessee Promise drawing near, the state is on pace to sign up about 40,000 students, twice its original goal and a number that is two-thirds of the state’s 60,000 high school seniors.
“There is a real buzz about this in Tennessee,” said Krause, executive director of both the state’s Drive to 55 and the Tennessee Promise initiatives. “There are conversations between students and guidance counselors that did not take place before.”
The Tennessee Promise is a first-in-the country state scholarship program, funded by an endowment from revenues from the Tennessee Lottery. It was signed into law by Haslam earlier this year. Under the program, students will receive funding to cover the cost of tuition and fees at the state’s 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology that is not covered by other scholarships and grants.
It a critical component of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative which has a hugely ambitious goal: by the year 2025, increase the percentage of Tennesseans holding a post-secondary credential from its current 32 percent to 55 percent. It’s a necessity if Tennessee is to compete for the jobs of the future, Haslam said.
“The Tennessee Promise makes a strong statement to our students and their families that education beyond high school is a priority for our state,” Haslam recently wrote in an op-ed for the Daily News-Journal of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “It has to be. Our economic future depends on it.”
“While we know that college isn’t for everyone, it has to be a reality for more Tennesseans than it is today.”
Colleges have embraced the effort to persuade students to apply. They’re using tools customarily associated with political campaigns: brochures, direct mailings, billboards, town hallstyle meetings, social media, recruiting visits to schools to answer questions and stoke up enthusiasm.
“We’ve been trying to make it difficult for people not to know,” said Bill Seymour, president of Cleveland State Community College. “It’s moving fast and furious.”
“It’s been a frenetic few months,” Krause said. “I came on board on June 2. We had a program from scratch in 90 days.”
Pellissippi State Community College decided the best place to meet students was on campus. The college invited students and their parents to campus twice a week over an eight-week period, said college President Anthony Wise. On the final Sunday before the Nov. 1 deadline to apply, the college will host an “Application Afternoon” in a final push.
“It’s almost like we started next year without finishing this year,” he said.
At each session, students are being told what is expected of them: They must apply during their senior year, meet all established deadlines, begin at the postsecondary institution in the fall or summer directly following high school, maintain at least 12 credit hours each semester, enroll for 4 or 5 consecutive semesters, perform eight hours of community service, meet with a mentor and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA each semester.
Those requirements have drawn criticism in some quarters. In an article that appeared on medium.com (https://medium.com/@bmckib/tennessees-promise-is-none-at-all-c3575cc79dd9) Bryce McKibben, a policy analyst for the Association of Community College Trustees wrote: “Research has firmly established that these ‘traditional’ students represent a very small portion of overall community college enrollments. They are also generally students who have the most resources and academic preparation before starting college, and are the most likely to attend a post-secondary program regardless of the aid offered to them.
Gone are the days when most college students have enrolled straight out of high school and attend full time without any breaks.”
Proponents counter that the Tennessee Promise embodies an effort to create a new collegegoing culture in the state. The requirements of students are among those closely tied to student success rates, such as fulltime attendance and meeting with a mentor.
“All those requirements are the requirements needed to succeed in community college,” Krause said. “We are trying to create a path to success. We are asking for some behavior modifications. We think students rise to the expectations that you give them.”
To prove their point, Tennessee Promise advocates point to tnAchieves, a six-year-old program which serves as a model for the new program. The philanthropic initiative imposes identical requirements on students and supplies similar benefits to students in parts of the state. Since it began, it has assisted more than 10,000 students. Statistics indicate that retention rates are 50 percent higher than the state average and graduation rates are triple the state average.
Students enrolled in tnAchieves benefit from strong student support systems, chief among them access to a mentor to help guide them through college. The mentor system is also central to the Tennessee Promise. Officials hope to sign up 6,000 volunteer mentors statewide, tapping civic groups, their own faculty and staff and prominent businesses.
The mentors have been dubbed the reminders-in-chief. They are being asked to keep in touch with students to remind them of program deadlines and offer any advice the students may need.
For colleges, meanwhile, the real work is just beginning. They are busy reviewing and bolstering their student support programs. By design, many Tennessee Promise applicants are the kind of students who never before even considered going to college. Some are poor high school achievers. Many likely will need extra attention to succeed in college, and Tennessee officials are acutely aware that the number of degrees that are eventually awarded will be the ultimate measure of the program’s success or failure.
So colleges will shepherd the new students into their most successful and innovative programs.
At Volunteer State Community College, for example, the orientation program is being redesigned.
Remedial English classes have been adjusted; students will be allowed to take a credit-bearing freshman English class instead of remedial writing.
Each student will be assigned a faculty advisor. Students will be kept on track through the school’s Guided Pathways to Success program, under which they select a major or broad field of study and all other course sequences are laid out for them. Bridge programs to four-year colleges are part of the GPS program.
“Since many of these students will be the first in their family to attend college, they will be coming to us less prepared,” said Vol State President Jerry Faulkner. “We want to make sure they have the support systems to succeed.”
Wise, the Pellissippi State president, said his college will rely on lessons learned from its experiences with tnAchieves and with the rapid enrollment increases fueled by the Great Recession. The college has a goal of enrolling 900 Tennessee Promise applicants.
“We’ve had a seven- to eightyear head start,” he said. “Some of the things that we learned during the rapid enrollment increases will help.”
Next on the agenda for students: having all Tennessee Promise applicants fill out the 108-question Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines eligibility for a host of state and federal aid programs. Mandatory meetings are being planned to help families and students fill out the complicated form.
Krause said the initiative is attracting national attention. He has heard from other states interested in the free college model. Educators around the country are following the Tennessee Promise initiative closely.
“We are acutely aware of the fact that next fall the eyes of the country will be upon us,” he said.