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Governor Bill Haslam talks to students at Cleveland State Community College as part of a series of Tennessee Promise kickoff events Monday.

Office of the Governor

Community colleges across Tennessee are starting their academic year with many students who may have never thought they would attend an institution of higher learning, but who are taking advantage of the Tennessee Promise program, which offers them a free two-year college education.

Although official numbers won't be available until after the 14th day of enrollment, Tennessee Promise has 22,534 college freshmen as of the last August deadline to remain in the program, said Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, the signature program of Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican.

Those numbers are well above the 13,000 students projected for the program a year ago, he said. Last fall, there were about 17,000 new freshmen enrolled in the state's community colleges and in 2013 about 11,400 incoming freshmen entered the community colleges straight after high school, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. It is that latter group of freshmen -- those who are immediate high school graduates -- that have been the target for Tennessee Promise, so the large participation numbers this fall show the state's initiative has had a considerable impact on them.

Tennessee has been hailed for its statewide initiative and is the basis for President Obama's America's College Promise, although promise programs, or those that offer at least two years of tuition-free higher education, have been around for a long time in one form or another. Oregon will become the second state to offer a similar statewide program.

And while many state officials are gearing up to promote the Tennessee Promise program with the Class of 2016 high school seniors, it's now up to the colleges to retain the students who were first to enroll in the program.

Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, offered to every graduating high school senior in the state to attend a two-year college degree program. The initiative covers all tuition and fees that federal grants and state scholarships and assistance programs do not, but students must have full-time status and maintain a 2.0 grade point average, along with meeting with mentors and completing at least eight hours of community service.

But there were challenges to making sure those students met the final deadlines for being able to participate in the first year.

"We were facing two challenges," Krause said. "One was the summer and vacation time. It's hard to get students to zero in on a goal during that time. Two, this population of students have a natural propensity to procrastinate. Early in July, we realized only 20 percent of students had completed the community service."

A host of events set up at college campuses and state parks helped thousands of students meet the eight-hour community service goal so they could continue to qualify for free tuition.

Northeast State Community College was one place where community service activities were set up to help the incoming freshmen reach that goal. That college in particular is seeing an influx of students this fall across its campuses, which serve five counties in the state.

"We're seeing 250 more [students] in the freshman class than last year and that's probably a record," said Janice Gilliam, president of Northeast State, adding that they have about 1,200 freshmen starting classes this week.

The college has expanded its teaching sites to accommodate the new students, but also started new programs such as entertainment technology and cybersecurity, she said.

"Our challenge now is to keep them now that we have them. So one of the major things we're focusing on is retention," Gilliam said. The college has a 59 percent first-to-second-year retention rate for full-time students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

So this fall, Tennessee Promise students, as well as any other first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen, will lease iPads from the college. The college is hopeful the devices will be one more tool students can use to not only help them stay in the Promise program, but for course work and studying. The college is also using a popular developmental reform, known as corequisite, that allows students to take college-level courses while also receiving support or tutoring.

But not every campus will see the benefits of Tennessee Promise. Some private colleges are expecting to see decreases in enrollment.

Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges & Universities Association, said he's been particularly concerned for those four-year institutions that have high Pell Grant recipient populations. Those colleges tend to share that demographic with the community college sector.

"I've got 34 campuses and about 25 of them could have some potential impact," Pressnell said, adding that those affected will be the state's historically black colleges and universities and those with smaller campuses.

To lessen that potential impact some colleges have created or expanded their associate degree offerings, Pressnell said, since Tennessee Promise students can still attend four-year institutions as long as they offer two-year degrees. However, those students receive the same size grants as those attending a community college.

"There was a movement for many years to jettison associate degrees and move fully into [bachelor's] degrees, but I think we're going to see that change now," he said. "Campuses are beginning to revitalize the associate degree programs to make sure they're directly linked to a pathway into a bachelor's program."

Take for instance Carson-Newman University -- a Christian institution of about 2,300 students located in Jefferson County. The college was initially listed as a Tennessee Promise institution a year ago because it had a couple of associate degree programs on its books.

"But we weren't using it. Maybe one person got [an associate degree] in the past 10 or 15 years, so it kind of went away," said Paul Percy, provost at Carson-Newman. "But when Tennessee Promise came and we were on the list, we knew to bring it back."

So the college set up three associate degree programs last year, in liberal studies, science and general studies, and arts in Christian ministries. Each program allows students to take all of the 100- and 200-level courses they need to complete general education requirements along with more specific electives, with the hope that they will guide students eventually toward a bachelor's degree.

Percy said the college is looking to add associate degree programs in business, psychology and criminal justice.

So far, they have about 30 Tennessee Promise students who are expected to attend this fall, "which is pretty good. We probably sent out about 60 financial aid packages that included Tennessee Promise and we got about half to come here," Percy said.

"There's tremendous opportunity for us to take advantage. You can either see community colleges as your competitor or a complement to what you do. I've always looked at them as a complement. Either we get them as freshmen or transfers," he said. "We took a positive approach toward it and have done well because we need more educated citizens. It's critical to the economic base of our state."

The state is already beginning to market and prepare this year's high school seniors for the program. Krause said they're planning to encourage students to complete the community service requirements early. The program did see a 72 percent community service completion rate this year.

Already about 1,000 high school students who are starting their senior year this fall applied within the first 24 hours of Tennessee Promise availability, Krause said, adding that while he didn't have numbers for last year, this figure surpassed the first year's 24 hours.

Krause believes this group of students have had a whole year to see how those ahead of them benefited from the program and they've also been listening to the same message about attending college.

"Walking around with some college and no degree doesn't go far on a résumé," Percy said. "To give associate degrees along the way is a benefit to students, because life might happen."

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