When our state launched the Tennessee Promise in 2014, we could not have imagined how the free-college conversation would emerge as a popular policy proposal across the nation. Our program grew out of a need to address a stagnant college-going rate that was impervious to traditional financial aid approaches, with thousands of low-income students each year electing not to pursue higher education. Five years and 58,000 students later, we can scarcely believe the seismic change catalyzed in our state by the Tennessee Promise.
But unfortunately, after perusing some recent think-tank reports, one would have been hard-pressed to have gathered any positive impacts from Promise programs implemented here and elsewhere. To be clear, the authors of those reports are thoughtful, passionate and valued colleagues. The issue they are seeking to illuminate, the emergent challenge of confronting and closing postsecondary equity gaps, should be the centerpiece of the American higher education conversation. My concern, however, is that by oversimplifying the concept of equity and ignoring the daily realities of state policy making, the reports do little to move the national conversation forward. And because the Tennessee Promise is featured in many of these discussions, I feel obligated to set the record straight on our free-college experience in the Volunteer State.
First and foremost, Tennessee Promise is about much more than just financial aid. It is about a network of more than 7,500 mentors who volunteer thousands of hours each year to serve as college coaches for our Promise students. It is about Tennessee Promise students reinvesting in their own local communities by completing community service each year. Most of all, it’s about speaking to students with a clear message and distilling the bureaucratic mess of financial aid into one sentence: in Tennessee, college is now tuition-free.
What last week’s reports miss, and what a recent response from Sara Goldrick-Rab and Michelle Miller-Adams rightly points out, is that “free” is a very powerful message. We have seen the power of this message firsthand, as FAFSA filings in Tennessee increased by almost 15 percent in the initial year of the program and have continued to grow ever since. Similarly, it’s about how our state’s college-going rate, stubbornly hovering for a decade around 55 percent, increased by 5 percent in the year immediately following the introduction of Tennessee Promise and has now reached almost 65 percent.
A casual observer might see those increases in conjunction with last week’s reports and assume that only middle- and high-income students are driving the increases in college going here. But examining the data behind low-income student enrollment tells a different story. Since implementation of Tennessee Promise, we have seen almost 8,000 additional Pell Grant recipients enroll in college, with more than 60 percent of these students having an expected family contribution of $0.
The growth of these metrics is encouraging, and almost certainly due to the shift in the college-going culture initiated by Tennessee Promise. The reality is, however, examining a Promise program extracted from the larger policy landscape is a flawed research approach. In most states with a Promise program, and certainly here in our state, free college is a component of a much larger constellation of student-support initiatives. Whether it is the need-based aid disbursed through the Tennessee Student Assistance Award, which has expended over $100 million in additional state aid to Pell-eligible students, or the fourth consecutive year of record low tuition increases at our colleges and universities, the broader horizon of affordability must be considered by those seeking to quantify the success of equity-focused efforts.
Finally, dismissing the impact of a last-dollar approach because Pell funds cover tuition for high-need students misses an important detail: students often don’t know what the Pell Grant is in the first place. Thus, they may count themselves out of college prematurely, believing their familial circumstances put college costs out of reach. The power of a last-dollar scholarship is the ability to operate within the fiscal parameters faced by most state governments, while also creating a sense of inevitability for students: you can afford college because it’s “free.”
The governors, legislators, state higher education executive officers and campus leaders trying to devise impactful policies have tough jobs. Uncertain financial resources, complex policy demands and the immediate needs of building the work force all challenge attempts to institute a student-focused agenda. Sometimes those realities mean we must pursue a policy solution that external observers deem imperfect, and sometimes they mean forgoing the utopian in favor of the practical.
But occasionally, as in the case of the Tennessee Promise, the practical can become something truly exceptional.