In Tennessee, officials now have a clearer picture of the impact of the country's first statewide, free two-year college program.
For more than a year state officials, with money and rhetoric, have been encouraging high school seniors to help increase Tennessee's population of adults with a college degree or certificate. And as of last week, new enrollment data show 16,291 of them have enrolled in the state's community, technical and private colleges this fall because of the new Tennessee Promise program. The Promise is one of the initiatives Governor Bill Haslam implemented to make sure at least 55 percent of the state's populace has a degree by 2025.
"In the first year of a 10-year initiative to increase degrees, this is the kind of trend you would want to see," said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Promise program. "When we launched our Drive to 55, our central goal was to increase the number of Tennesseans graduating from college, so obviously we needed to increase Tennesseans' access to college."
Promise programs have existed in one form or another for a long time, but Tennessee and now Oregon currently offer statewide versions. Tennessee's program is one of a number of free two-year college programs the Obama administration regarded as the basis for the America's College Promise initiative. In Tennessee, high school seniors must meet a number of requirements in order to qualify for the Promise program, including participating in community service. The program will also follow and track the academic careers for each Promise participant to see if they complete college and with what type of degree or certificate.
Over all, the freshman class in Tennessee's public colleges has increased by 10.1 percent this fall -- due in large part to the effect of Tennessee Promise in the state's technical and community colleges and despite decreases at the state's public universities. The community colleges saw a 24.7 percent increase in enrollment of first-time freshmen and the technical colleges experienced 20 percent growth, according to the state's higher education commission report.
There are about 50,700 freshmen enrolled in the state's colleges or universities this year, compared to about 46,000 in 2014.
The state's universities are down in freshman enrollment, although no one can say for sure if the Promise program has affected those institutions, and some believe it hasn't had an effect at all. But the institutions overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents are down 8.4 percent and University of Tennessee campuses are down 4.6 percent.
Krause said the biggest surprise has been the increase at the technical colleges.
"Our technical colleges, like many others in the country, often suffer from a lack of visibility with students," he said. "We deliberately never wanted to say 'free community college.' It's always 'free community or technical college.' It was important to the governor that the core initiative was always workforce development."
Fewer than 500 Tennessee Promise students, or about 2 percent, are enrolled in the state's independent or private colleges, said Emily House, executive director of policy, planning and research for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
The report also details the net cost of the last-dollar scholarship program. The Promise is offered to qualified graduating high school seniors and covers all tuition and fees that federal grants, state scholarships and assistance programs do not. This academic year the program will cost the state about $10.6 million, with the average award per student at $1,020, according to the commission's report. About 53 percent of Promise students are eligible for federal Pell Grants for low-income students.
Effect on Four-Year Institutions
Despite the increases at community and technical colleges, House said it's uncertain what role the Promise program played at the state's four-year institutions.
In August, at the start of the academic year, there were about 22,500 Tennessee Promise freshmen. But the program has lost about 6,000 of those students since that time.
House said about 1,500 of those students enrolled at a four-year public institution.
"Maybe they were wait-listed or maybe they changed their minds or maybe they used the Promise as a plan B," she said. "Other than that, we're not certain. We'll need to match with [the National Student Clearinghouse] to see if they didn't enroll at all, or if they went private. Enrollment at the four-years is down a little bit, but we're not quite sure if it's a direct relationship with Promise."
At the University of Tennessee at Martin, enrollment is down about 3.6 percent for all undergraduates and about 13 percent among freshmen, said Bud Grimes, director of university relations there.
"We're not attributing Tennessee Promise as the cause for enrollment decline in freshman numbers. We see that as an opportunity down the line that we're going to get more qualified transfer students from the community colleges," he said.
Instead, the university is attributing the decrease to other factors -- poor marketing and sparse population in the western area of the state.
"Earning a UT degree is strong for us, and we're the only UT campus in this part of the state," Grimes said. "Certainly some opted for the community college experience, but I don't know those numbers and I don't think those numbers are high in those who considered UTM."
Boost in the Middle
The community colleges that saw some of the largest gains from the Promise program are located in middle Tennessee, House said.
There was growth in the western and eastern regions of the state, but not as much as the middle region. Tennessee Achieves -- on which the Promise was based -- was already established and started in the eastern region, and so the Promise had less of an effect as it did in the middle region, she said.
Motlow State Community College, which is located in the middle part of the state, saw a 74.8 percent increase in full-time freshmen this year -- the highest of any two-year institution in the state. Volunteer State Community College experienced a 54.8 percent increase, as well.
"There was a close relationship between the college and our affiliated high schools in our service area," said Eric Melcher, coordinator of communications and public relations for Volunteer State, adding that they also had a high number of mentors coming from the college to work with the high school students, although he didn't have the exact number immediately available.
The college also recognizes that it will have to work to retain this increase in freshmen, so it brought in "completion coaches," or advisers connected to specific academic areas who meet with students regularly to help them understand the paths they're on and to help them meet their goals, he said. The college also hired extra faculty members due to increased class sizes.
It won't be long before many of these colleges will see the next influx of Promise students, who will graduate high school this spring.
More than 59,600 high school seniors -- 2,000 more students than this time last year -- have met the first deadline for participating in the Promise program next fall, House said.