Tennessee Promise offers every Tennessee student up to two free years of community college at any of the state’s 13 community colleges or 27 Colleges of Applied Technology as well as a volunteer mentor who will support them throughout the college application process. The scholarship is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers college costs not already covered by federal grants. The estimated annual cost of the program started at $34 million and is largely funded through an endowment from the state lottery.
The Promise was proposed in 2014 as part of Governor Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which has an overall goal of 55% of Tennesseans obtaining a postsecondary credential by 2025. This initiative also included new policies dealing with college remediation, incentives for older adults to return to school, and the governance of the Tennessee Board of Regents.
In order to receive the tuition money, high school students must apply for the program by November of their senior year. They then must attend mandatory meetings with their mentor, where they receive guidance and assistance in applying for college and completing the FAFSA. Mentors come from many different backgrounds and commit to mentoring 5-10 high school seniors for a total of 10-15 hours per year. Once a student has been admitted to a postsecondary institution, in order to keep the scholarship, they must maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled.
If the student follows a Tennessee Transfer Pathway while at community college, once they receive their A.A. or A.S. degree and transfer to a state public four-year institution, they are guaranteed that all courses will count for credit towards completion of a four-year degree.
Policy in Action
In the first year after the legislation passed, the 13 Tennessee community colleges saw a six percent jump in full-time student enrollment on average, with one institution seeing a jump of almost 20 percent. Applications to Tennessee Promise have increased steadily since the first year, from 58,286 in 2014 to 59,621 in 2015, and, according to a press release from Governor Bill Haslam, a record 60,780 applications in 2016. Additionally, the program came in about $2 million under budget in its first year, as more than half of the Tennessee Promise students also qualified for federal aid that covered some or all of their tuition. The state heard feedback during the first year that some students still faced hurdles in filling out the FAFSA and were therefore unable to access the scholarship, so the state made some adjustments to that policy, including providing more time for students and their families to complete and verify the form.
In August 2016, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission announced that, for the second year in a row, Tennessee students led the nation in FAFSA completion rates with 70.3 percent of the graduating class of 2015-16 filling out a form.
In April 2016, the Governor announced that the fall to spring retention rate for Tennessee Promise programs was 80.6 percent, with technical colleges seeing an average retention rate of almost 95 percent. These rates showed an increase from previous years, even with the increased enrollment spurred by the Tennessee Promise scholarship. It is yet to be seen how well students are retained after the first year and go on to attain a postsecondary degree, and a 2011 pilot of the program in Knoxville saw only 23 percent of participants go on to finish their degree, as students ran into other costs and barriers to completion that were not addressed by a last-dollar tuition scholarship. However, the adjustments made to the program since the 2011 pilot and the early retention data show potential for better outcomes.
A new report from the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee (CERT) predicts that more than 120 thousand Tennesseans will need to obtain an associate's degree by 2025 to reach the state's Drive to 55 Goal. Tennessee Promise, a component of Drive to 55, aims to put more young people on that track. According to the report, high school graduates can expect to earn an additional $5,900 per year on average with a certificate or associate's degree — illuminating the economic benefit of postsecondary access.
University of Pennsylvania case study: Driven to Perform: Tennessee's Higher Education Policies & Outcomes