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Tennessee Delivers on its Promise

Tennessee may be known for its legendary singers and musicians. Today, however, the state has drawn national attention for a different kind of ‘hit.’ It’s drawing high praise for its ambitious state-wide initiative to boost college enrollment.

The multi-dimensional “two years tuition-free” Tennessee Promise program, as it is known, is set to reach a two-year milestone, having gone full throttle toward achieving its goal of significantly boosting high school senior interest in going to college. The program also is seeing enrollments climb in community and technical college programs.

052417 Tenn PromiseAs the nation’s school year ends this spring, higher education advocates around the country are watching the state’s efforts, as they work through ideas of their own to boost college enrollment.

“It’s really jump-started programs,” says Dr. Walter Bumphus, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Association of Community Colleges. Bumphus, who has visited the state and met with its governor and higher education officials, says he is “totally and surprisingly impressed” with the Tennessee effort. “Community college gives you a leg up,” in getting prepared for the world of work and service, he says.

Higher education economist Sandy Baum, a fellow at the Urban Institute, notes the hoopla over the Tennessee Promise program while cautioning higher education colleagues to understand that Tennessee Promise is a “last dollar” program, meaning the poorest of the poor would get some public help without the Tennessee Promise program. It is not an initiative that simply erases tuition from the start, as former President Obama and other advocates suggested and smaller programs, like Kalamazoo Promise, do.

“It does have a support system,” she says, which students really need.

Tennessee Promise officials say they will be able to show data on enrollment gains in two-year institutions and get early readings on whether the program is helping increase the number of students going on to historically four-year institutions.

Such data is increasingly important to public four-year institutions, as legislators steadily shift tax allocation funds to performance-based funding measures. At the same time, public and private institutions, whether large or small, are scrambling to boost their enrollment during an era when overall college-bound enrollment is shrinking.

Of as much importance as the enrollment gains cited by Tennessee Promise are the number of potential college students who don’t enroll, say program officials and advocates.

Myriad personal challenges undermine Tennessee’s and the nation’s efforts to get high school seniors to take that next step, they say, regardless of opportunity lures and the need for more adults to be better prepared for the job market.

“It’s hard to penetrate and alter the decision making of an 18-year-old [high school] senior,” says Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the Tennessee Promise program. The historical message of the opportunities and values of going beyond high school was not resonating with many high school students of more recent years, Krause and others said.

“We knew we had to shock the system,” Krause says, recalling the year-by-year, step-by-step actions taken to bring Tennessee Promise to life. It started in 2014 with a high school-by-high school, senior-to-senior education program about going to college. Tennessee had a “fundamental problem” of communicating with high school seniors about the importance of education beyond high school, Krause says.

Getting the attention of high school seniors who may be on the fence about going to college or technical school was harder than he and his peers thought. Still, getting their attention and getting more students to enroll in school are two of the three main objectives of Tennessee Promise, he says.

The third leg of this race is seeing how far Tennessee Promise students will go beyond the two-year promise. How effective will the new “transfer pathways” be? Krause notes the state needs more trained adults to fill the jobs it is trying to bring to the state and keep.

Boosting college participation isn’t just about the money students need, says Krause and others who have worked with the program at various levels and who are on the front lines of the state’s enhanced higher education effort.

Getting students of all levels of income to realize they could go to college if they really want to is the initial challenge, as many low-income students and their parents do not know of Pell Grants, which are loans that recipients do not have to pay back.

For students and families who fall in the so-called middle — between not qualifying for federal assistance because their income is not low enough and not being able to afford college because their overall obligations are more than the cost of college —  Tennessee Promise fills the gap, if students and their families know how to navigate the system.

In both categories, Krause and his colleagues learned, more than a handful of students were not college bound simply because they knew too little about it or were intimidated by the idea.

“We also needed to make sure [high school seniors] had all the tools they needed to step up,” says Krissy DeAlejandro, executive director of Tennessee Achieve, the nonprofit Knoxville-based program that was one of the key models for Tennessee Promise.

DeAlejandro, whose program tries to recruit about 9,000 volunteer mentors each year to work with Tennessee Promise students, says one would “be amazed” to learn how many parents don’t think of college for their children and don’t know about federal aid to attend college. Some are simply “intimidated” by the idea.

Her parents did not know, says DeAlejandro, a first-generation college student from a low-income home, who earned her degree from Sewanee, the noted private liberal arts college in East Tennessee. That was in the late 1990s and it remains true today. Students and parents tell her that not knowing about the availability of funds is among the leading reasons students cannot go to college.

By the time the program was approved by the state legislature in 2014 and was up and running with funds from a state lottery endowment, Tennessee Promise set out to communicate to every high school student in the state a one-phrase message: “two years tuition-free.”

Tennessee Promise applicants are not required to meet a minimum grade point average (GPA) to qualify for program assistance or achieve any minimum score on the ACT or SAT exam, removing major hurdles for some prospective students. Many institutions working with the program waived application fees. Students would have to commit to taking 12 credit hours each semester.

For sure, the state is not planning to simply dole out lottery money with no strings attached. The scholarship is available to Tennessee high school seniors regardless of income as long as they jump a few hurdles — resulting in benefits for the students, their families, their communities and the state.

Every student who wants a piece of Tennessee Promise money has to apply to a college in-state and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to determine whether they are eligible to receive federal funds. The FAFSA form has to be filed by a preset deadline. Students also have to participate in eight hours of community service during their final year of high school and must attend two mandatory mentoring sessions, one on filling out a FAFSA form and the second on getting into college.

“This was always about having some skin in the game,” says DeAlejandro, referring to the requirements for participating in the program.

Once enrolled, students in Tennessee Promise are required to take a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to continue in the program.

Once the Federal Student Aid office analyzes a student’s financial condition and the student chooses a school, Tennessee Promise decides what part of a student’s tuition it would pay. The decision is made based on the “last dollar” approach to funding, meaning the state pays the difference between what a student gets from existing student assistance programs and what the college or technical school charges.

Tennessee Promise pays all of a student’s tuition for the first two years of college if he or she does not qualify for any federal or state grants or scholarship assistance. The program pays the difference or “last dollar,” if a student’s federal and state aid falls short of the tuition needed. Either way, the first two years are free.

With Tennessee Promise in action, the state has seen the number of students enrolling in “post-secondary education opportunities” steadily rise. Its count of 16,291 participants in the program since fall 2015 had risen to 23,295 students by fall 2016. Tennessee Promise gave away $25.3 million in the 2016-17 school year averaging $1,090 per student.

More than half the students who enrolled through Tennessee Promise were eligible for some support from the federal Pell Grant program.

Eleanore Czelusniak, a 20-year old student at Motlow State Community College, echoes the thoughts of Krause and DeAlejandro while discussing the rewards and challenges of Tennessee Promise.

Czelusniak, the first-generation college student from a single-parent household, hopes to graduate from Motlow this spring and enter David Lipscomb University in Nashville this fall. She recalls her family’s income was too high for her to qualify for a Pell Grant or other federal aid. By the same token, they did not have enough income for her to go to college. Tennessee Promise’s “last dollar” funding and a Tennessee HOPE Access Grant, which is based on academic merit, helped her begin pursuing her dreams.

Some of her high school friends also went to college, she says, but many did not. “They just flat out didn’t want to go to college,” Czelusniak says. “I guess school just wasn’t their thing. They just wanted to go to work.”

As he ticked off a list of achievements in the two-year life of Tennessee Promise, Krause, a Bronze Medal recipient representing his three combat tours of duty in the Middle East as a member of the 101st Airborne, says he has noticed some less than exciting moments at the program. High on the list is the 37 percent estimate he has of how many Tennessee Promise prospects did not follow through this program.

“Most people look at 63 percent and feel pretty good,” says Krause, the 35-year-old higher education leader, who graduated from Austin Peay State University while in the Army and went to classes at night for several years. “I look at 37 percent,” he says, referring to the people he had hoped to help with their futures. “We’ve got to retain them.”

Tennessee Promise expects to report on its “transfer pathway” results this summer, as it continues tracking the impact of the initiative.

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