Will the Tennessee Promise of Free Community College Work?

Dear Commons Community,

Educators and policy makers are intensely watching the roll-out of the Tennessee Promise for next year, the program that provides a free community college education for every high school graduate.  Basically it is in the student application process stage right now but early results seem impressive.  As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required):

“Nearly 90 percent of high-school seniors in Tennessee applied [to the program], and more than 9,000 adults have volunteered to serve as mentors for those applicants.

It’s a large-scale experiment, and higher-education experts and policy makers across the nation will be watching to see if the lure of tuition-free college attracts students—and keeps them in college long enough to complete a degree or vocational program.

The early results are encouraging, but they’re far from a guarantee of success. While two-year colleges are bracing for enrollment increases, more students in classrooms won’t necessarily translate into an increase in college completions—the real goal of the Promise.

If enrollments increase too much, community colleges may struggle with the cost of adding enough instructors. An influx of students who are unprepared for the rigors of college learning may lead to more dropouts along the way. And some students still may not have enough financial support to attend full time (a requirement of the program) without working, hampering their academic progress.”

It also appears that the program will not cost as much as initial expected since:

“State officials estimate that the average Tennessee Promise student will receive a little less than $1,000 per year. In fact, many students who sign up for the program will not get any money through the program because they are eligible for a full Pell Grant of $5,700—nearly $2,000 more than the cost of full-time tuition at a community-college in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” scholarship, which means that the state will cover only the tuition costs left after a student applies for other forms of financial aid, such as a Pell Grant or the state’s Hope Scholarship, which has a minimum grade-point-average requirement.

That last-dollar approach keeps the cost of the Promise relatively low and politically palatable in a conservative state whose lawmakers are stingy about government spending. The money also comes from state lottery proceeds, not tax dollars—another detail that makes the program easier for legislators to swallow.

The small amount of money is meant to send a big message, said Governor William E. Haslam during an interview in his office. For most families, “the funding gap is not that big, but they don’t know that,” he said. “We want to push down that barrier.”

The critical issue for this program is whether these students will be successful and graduate. It will not do them any good if the program becomes a revolving door with many students admitted only to drop out because they cannot meet academic requirements or they feel pressured to address other personal, financial, and family needs. On the other hand, if it does works, it will be the model for states throughout the country.