Seattle Times looks at the “Tennessee Promise,” a key to the state’s efforts to boost postsecondary education attainment

The Seattle Times has a couple of stories this morning that mesh well with our post yesterday on the job opportunities awaiting workers with postsecondary credentials or college degree. Both stories report on the Tennessee Promise, described on the program’s website this way:

Tennessee Promise is both a scholarship and mentoring program focused on increasing the number of students that attend college in our state. It provides students a last-dollar scholarship, meaning the scholarship will cover the cost of tuition and mandatory fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award. Students may use the scholarship at any of the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, or other eligible institution offering an associate degree program.

While removing the financial burden is key, a critical component of Tennessee Promise is the individual guidance each participant will receive from a mentor who will assist the student as he or she navigates the college admission process. This is accomplished primarily via mandatory meetings that students must attend in order to remain eligible for the program. In addition, Tennessee Promise participants must complete and submit eight (8) hours of community service per term enrolled, as well as maintain satisfactory academic progress (2.0 GPA) at their respective institution.

The ST asks, “can Tennessee Promise of free tuition offer lessons to Seattle and Washington?” ST higher education reporter Katherine Long writes,

In 2015, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to promise a free community-college education to every high-school graduate. Through a program called Tennessee Promise, it didn’t matter how rich or poor, how high their GPAs were, or how low. Students only had to complete four simple paperwork steps, commit to going to school full time, and start classes the fall after they graduated.

In a single year, Tennessee’s college-going rate shot up 4.6 percent — a major leap in a statistic that rarely moves, and a sign of progress in a state where only about a quarter of the population has completed a bachelor’s degree…

While Seattle and Tennessee may seem worlds apart, this southern state may offer lessons for the Pacific Northwest, where Mayor Jenny Durkan has proposed a similar program that would allow any Seattle student to go to the city’s three community colleges tuition-free.

In Tennessee, the Tennessee Promise is part of the state’s “Drive to 55” effort, supported by the Drive to 55 Alliance:

Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance is an active and rapidly growing alliance of private sector partners and community and nonprofit leaders working together in support of the state’s Drive to 55 initiative to equip 55 percent of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

The goal of the Drive to 55 Alliance is to help generate greater private sector awareness, ownership and support for the long-term steps needed in college entry and completion, adult education and training, and identifying and closing skills gaps to better prepare our workforce and our state for the future.

The Alliance actively supports all facets of the Drive to 55 initiative. It helped lead the state’s successful launch and implementation of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program that provides two-years of tuition-free community or technical college to Tennessee high school graduates.

The Drive to 55 is now helping lead the charge for Tennessee Reconnect, to help more adults complete a postsecondary degree or credential at a community or technical college, tuition free.

Long’s reporting for the Times points out that in Tennessee,

It’s also cost the state surprisingly little.

Many who participate already qualify for federal financial aid, so Tennessee leverages that assistance, spending $33 million this year to send about 20,000 students to community and technical colleges. The money comes from an endowment created with lottery funds, and is not dependent on either legislative or voter support, unlike similar programs in other states.

While simplicity is a key to the program, she reports,

Tennessee does make demands of its students. They have to be in a career-oriented program — they can’t just take pottery classes, for example — or must be planning to transfer to a four-year college. They have to go to school full time. They have to perform eight hours of community service each semester.

Through a nonprofit called Tennessee Achieves, every student is paired with a volunteer mentor — an adult who knows the college ropes — and must meet with that mentor two times. After five semesters, if the student hasn’t graduated, the money dries up.

We encourage your to read the ST story and learn more about the program. One more takeout:

[Tennessee Gov. Bill] Haslam’s most persuasive talking point: Economic research showed that Tennesseans who did not have any kind of post-high-school training made an average of only $10,000 annually. A 2012 report on Tennessee earnings found that graduates of the state’s 13 community colleges made an average wage of $38,948.

That underscored the idea that a postsecondary credential was no longer optional — it had become a passport to a living wage.

Long’s other story in the Times today points out the changes Tennessee made to its community colleges to support successful degree completion.

It took more than free tuition to make Tennessee’s free community-college program a success.

Tennessee has also done a complete overhaul of its community colleges — pedestrian-sounding changes that include defining pathways that lead to degrees or careers, bumping up advising, allowing students to take both remedial and college-level courses at the same time, doing away with algebra as a requirement for nontechnical tracks and making it easy for students to schedule classes in blocks of time.

With most jobs in our state, as in the nation, requiring completion of a postsecondary training program or college, it’s critical that policymakers learn from the successful experiences of others. Tennessee Promise is one of those success stories.