Tennessee Promise

5 Lessons From the Tennessee Promise

By Dennis Pierce

With access solved through tuition-free community college, the state now targets completion with things it has learned in the past year.

Editor’s Note: Both Oregon and Tennessee are expecting or have already seen an increase in students because of tuition-free community college. In this two-part series, we take a look at how each state is focusing on the students’ first year.

Having removed a key barrier to community college access, the Tennessee Promise program — which makes community college tuition-free for graduating high school seniors in the state — is setting its sights on making sure students complete their degrees or certificates and move on to a four-year college or a career.

The initial cohort of Tennessee Promise students has just wrapped up its first semester at one of the state’s community colleges. More than 58,000 students applied for the program last year, and 16,000 ultimately took part. Enrollment in the state’s community colleges is up 25 percent this year as a result of the program.

State officials are pleased with these numbers, but they say that getting students into college is only the first step in the process — and completion is the ultimate goal.

Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, says the program will be making a few changes to support student success more effectively going forward, based on some of the lessons learned from the first year.

Lesson 1: Communicate more with students’ parents.

“We heard from parents that they really wanted to be heavily involved in the discussion, and we agreed that was important,” Krause says. “Every time we communicate with students this spring about the Tennessee Promise requirements, we’ll also be communicating with their parents.”

Lesson 2: Mentors involved through the first year.

Every Tennessee Promise student is assigned a mentor, and the state will be changing how this mentorship is structured.

“In the past, as a Tennessee Promise mentor, you would have had this long, robust conversation with your students that ran through August,” he explains. “In some cases it would continue during the school year, but not always. This year, it will definitely continue. Students will continue that dialogue with their mentors throughout their first year in college.”

These changes (communicating with parents and increasing mentor involvement) will support a completion agenda that is already in place for all Tennessee colleges, Krause says. For instance, the state’s colleges receive funding based on student outcomes, not just enrollment. Tennessee officials have encouraged the state’s colleges to ramp up their advising and student support services and to make sure students are guided toward a structured pathway that leads to a four-year college or a career as quickly as possible.

Lesson 3: Implement a “default scheduling” policy.

Krause cites some examples of Tennessee community colleges that have taken specific steps to support their Promise students. For instance, Chattanooga State Community College has moved to a “default scheduling” policy.

Based on the interests indicated on admission applications, first-year students receive a personalized schedule. “This removes an incredible amount of the uncertainty that first-generation students often face when they look at a catalog that has hundreds of choices,” he says.

Lesson 4: Give students the tools they need.

At Northeast State Community College, officials “realized one of their hurdles was student access to technology,” Krause says. “From their own institutional funds, they gave every single Tennessee Promise student an iPad on day one. That iPad is preloaded with everything the students need to be successful.”

“Students aren’t always coming from the same technological backgrounds, and so this really levels the technological playing field,” Krause adds.

Lesson 5: Cover the increase in enrollment.

Many of the state’s community colleges have hired more advisers and other staff to accommodate the influx of new students. “We planned for this enrollment surge,” Krause says, noting that the colleges are receiving additional tuition funding from the state to cover the surge.

“We believe it’s the colleges’ choice in how they want to invest those funds,” he adds. “Clearly, many have invested in student supports and other completion initiatives — and we applaud that.”

“We’ve put in place some aggressive interventions to make sure students are on the right path,” Krause says. “Our confidence in the ability of our Promise students to succeed is tied to our completion agenda.”

Read yesterday’s post here.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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