In the Door, and Then Out
Tennessee Shifts Focus from Access to Success
Since at least 2010, Tennessee’s system of community colleges has commanded national attention and acclaim for its groundbreaking work in improving access to college.
The state’s Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which covers tuition for two years at the state’s community and technical colleges for recent high school graduates, has persuaded thousands of residents to enroll in college. It touched off a free college movement that has spread across the country.
Last year, the number of Tennessee students applying in the program’s fourth year — 62,860 of the state’s more than 74,000 graduating seniors in public and private high schools — eclipsed all expectations.
A second program which built on the Tennessee Promise has had a similar experience. Tennessee Reconnect, which is aimed at adult learners, had expected 8,000 potential students to apply for the program.
But as the 2018 fall semester got under way, more than 30,000 adults had applied for the scholarship, according to state education officials.
Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and architect of the free college initiative, said the programs have exceeded all expectations.
Less publicized, but perhaps more important, are the efforts by the state’s community colleges to help more students, including all those newcomers, earn a college credential.
According to a recent report by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, “Tennessee’s 13 community colleges, with leadership from the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR), have implemented an impressive array of reforms aimed at improving student persistence and success.
“The Tennessee community colleges are reforming their programs, policies, and processes to better help students choose, enter, navigate, and complete programs of interest to them and to ensure that these programs prepare students to advance in the labor market and pursue further education at the bachelor’s level and beyond.”
Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the CCRC and one of the authors of the report, said the reforms are at the core of the program’s success.
“The Tennessee Promise is succeeding at getting students in the door” Jenkins said in an interview. “Now you have to get them out. To do that, you have to rethink the entire process from the front end.”
Tennessee has overhauled all of its community colleges, in the process becoming perhaps the best example of the guided pathways approach, the topic of a “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges,” a book authored by Davis, fellow researcher Shanna Smith Jaggers and former CCRC director Thomas Bailey.
As the book implored them to, the colleges are defining pathways that lead to degrees or careers. They are improving advising and allowing students to take both remedial and college-level courses at the same time. They have done away with algebra as a requirement for non-technical tracks and made it easier for students to schedule classes in blocks of time.
“This is what we were talking about in the book,” Jenkins said. “These colleges are doing it, and it’s working.”
The report adds: “As described above, the community colleges in Tennessee are going ‘all-in’ in implementing student success reforms consistent with the guided pathways model. They are undertaking multiyear, whole-college transformations with the goal of improving college completion for all students.”
The results so far have been promising.
Early indicators show that Tennessee students are earning more credits and passing critical benchmark courses, the CCRC report said.
“By implementing multiple complementary reforms concurrently, the colleges have been able to impact many parts of the student experience and support students throughout their pathway through college. This contrasts with the piecemeal, fragmented way community colleges often approach reforms intended to improve student outcomes,” the report said.
The report findings include:
• From 2010 to 2016, Tennessee community colleges increased rates at which students hit key credit accumulation benchmarks. For example, in 2010, 42 percent of entering students earned at least six credits in their first term. In 2016, the number was 67 percent; 14 percent of first-year students earned at least 12 credits in 2010. In 2016, the figure was 36 percent.
• Gateway course completion improved steadily from 2010 to 2014 and showed larger improvements in 2015 and 2016. In 2010, 43 percent of students completed college English in their first year; in 2016, the comparable percentage was 63 percent. In 2010, 18 percent of student completed college math in their first year. In 2010, the figure was 45 percent.
• Colleges also saw strong improvement among black and Hispanic students in hitting critical academic benchmarks, though large gaps between white and black students remained. In 2010, 6 percent of black students completed college math in their first year compared to 32 percent in 2016. Among Hispanic students, 19 percent completed college math in their first year, compared to 46 percent in 2016. Overall, racial gaps in the completion of college-level English in students’ first year narrowed between Black students (55 percent) and White Students (65 percent) and were nearly eliminated between White students and Hispanic students (64 percent) in 2016.
Tennessee colleges significantly altered their approach to college math, the most common stumbling block for community college students, Jenkins said. It used to be that some 80 percent of students were required to take an algebra-calculus sequence, regardless of their career goals.
Now, math requirements are tied to an academic map based on a student’s goals, Jenkins said.
“Students have to choose a major and get a map on how to get to the end,” he said. “And the maps include appropriate math. If you are interested in criminal justice, you don’t need to take algebra. You should be taking statistics. The same is true for a business major.”
Though early results have been encouraging, the colleges know there is much work to be done.
For example, on average, adult students in the Tennessee community colleges (as in most community colleges nationally) have poorer outcomes than younger students do. The colleges have recognized this and are taking steps to better serve adult students, including not only Tennessee Reconnect students but also veterans and other returning adults.
Walters State Community College has offered a 10-week, tuition-free workshops for adult students who plan to enroll through Tennessee Reconnect. To accommodate adult students’ schedules, the college offered day and evening workshops, during which students can complete their learning support requirements in math, writing, and reading so that they can begin their first term taking college-level courses.
Colleges are also helping students explore career and college options while they are still in high school. A few colleges are administering career assessments to high school students and help them explore college programs and career options. Other colleges help high school students actively explore career and program interests through academies and dual enrollment offerings linked to their programs.
“The colleges are not declaring victory by any means,” Jenkins said. “I strongly feel the gains we’ve seen are due to the fact that we are removing barriers that should not have been there in the first place.”