Tennessee Promise: Offering free community college to all students

New scholarships are part of a statewide effort to increase the share of college grads and meet a shortage of skilled workers, says Executive Director Mike Krause.

Tennessee is the first state in the nation to offer free community college to all students. Image credit: iStockphoto by Getty

Tennessee currently ranks 43rd in the nation in the share of residents who’ve completed college – 32 percent of Tennesseeans hold at least a two-year degree.

The dearth of graduates means a future shortage of educated workers to fill the high-skilled jobs the state is producing. Tennessee officials say that at least 55 percent of the jobs in the state will require a post-secondary credential by 2025.

To bridge this gap, Governor Bill Haslam announced in February 2014 the nation’s first-ever effort to provide free community college to all state residents, regardless of merit or need. The new “Tennessee Promise” scholarships are part of the state’s recently-launched “Drive to 55” initiative, which aims to increase the share of Tennesseans who are college graduates to 55 percent. Reaching this goal by 2025 will require 494,000 additional degrees, officials say.

The Tennessee Promise scholarships will be funded by  $110 million from the state’s lottery reserves, along with a $47 million endowment created by the state General Assembly. Students are expected to receive an average scholarship of $971, in addition to existing aid from the state’s Hope Scholarship program. Students will also be required to maintain a 2.0 GPA and give 8 hours of community service per semester.

We spoke to Mike Krause, the Executive Director of Tennessee Promise.  This interview has been edited for length.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" would raise the percentage of college graduates in his state.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s “Drive to 55” would raise the percentage of college graduates in his state.

R3.0: How did Tennessee Promise come about?

Krause: Gov. Haslam traveled the state about two years ago on a listening tour and asked business and industry what they needed to build their workforce.

What the governor heard was that industry vacancies were not being filled because there were not enough qualified workers – and that’s something you never want to hear. The other thing is that economic development is starting to be less about providing incentives and more about having a qualified workforce.

R3.0: What are the jobs that are going to need post-secondary education?

Krause:  We sat down with the economic research center at the University of Tennessee and had them forecast what jobs are going to be open, and then linked it to data showing which people are graduating from college in which majors.

It is an incredibly powerful study because it shows us not just which jobs are going to be open, but which jobs are going to have a deficit of college graduates. Among the top 10 jobs [where there will be shortages], four or five of them are in science and technology, engineering or math. Many of the jobs are also in IT and information systems, which are pretty much the foundation now for every business endeavor.

R3.0: How is the Tennessee Promise scholarship different from the state’s currently offered Hope Scholarship?

Krause: The Hope scholarship is a merit scholarship and is awarded based on a student’s academic qualifications. The Promise Scholarship is awarded regardless of a student’s academic qualifications.

It is also being paid for with a net cost to the state of zero. Gov. Haslam is utilizing the lottery reserve that has built up over the years and is putting that into an irrevocable trust that now provides interest earnings. Those interest earnings fund the scholarship. It’s an incredibly innovative and fiscally conservative way to approach this issue.

R3.0: How many scholarships can you fund with just the interest income from the reserve?

Krause: We are not funding a student’s full cost of higher education – it’s a last-dollar scholarship.  The way this works is that a student would enroll in one of our institutions, and they would receive aid from Tennessee Promise after all other financial aid – such as Pell [Grants] and the [Tennessee] Hope scholarship. We fill in that last dollar gap. That results in a much lower expense to the state, and it leverages the student’s entire financial aid package.

Because we’re taking that approach, the Governor can make a really powerful statement that community college is free when you graduate from high school. For students who may not have considered higher education and were telling themselves, “Well, I just can’t afford college,” we can tell them, “You can afford college, and we’re going to help you.”

R3.0: Is there a particular type of student that you’re targeting with this program?

Krause: Tennessee Promise is built for students who aren’t entering higher education at all. We are in no way seeking to shuffle students to a two-year college who may have been thinking they would attend a four-year college. This program is about capturing students who were previously leaving the education system after high school.

R3.0: Do you know who these students are, geographically or demographically?

Krause: We can tell you where the college-going rate in which counties is really low and which are very high, and that helps us to determine what our focus areas are. But there’s actually a pretty even distribution of students across the state who aren’t entering higher education. A lot of it has to do with whether or not your parents went to higher education. First-generation college students are an essential focus for Tennessee Promise.

R3.0: Tennessee Promise has several other features that make it unique, including a mentorship component and a community service requirement. What is the purpose of these additional features?  

Krause: When we’re bringing in a diverse group of students into higher education who might otherwise not have enrolled, we also have to think about their success, and that has to do with more than financial aid.

We’re offering a wraparound set of supports in Tennessee Promise, and the first of these is mentorship. We’re asking communities to offer volunteer mentors. This is a proven model that several groups across the state implement already – for example, a group called Tennessee Achieves has been doing this in Knoxville for years.

The importance of the mentors cannot be overstated. To bring a first-generation student into higher education, you have to have help navigating the system.

We also require students who are participating in Tennessee Promise to give back to the community. The research shows that students who serve in their communities are more engaged and more successful, and it’s a great lesson to teach them – that while we’re engaged in assisting you in your higher education goals, we’re also asking you to give back.

The last thing we’re doing is requiring students to attend community college full time. This is an incredibly important policy decision. When students attend community college full-time, they without question succeed at a higher rate than a student who attended part-time. So if you’re a Tennessee Promise student, we’re going to ask that you attend full time, and the financial aid will allow you to do that.

R3.0: But the Tennessee Promise scholarship only covers tuition and fees, not books or the cost of attendance. Is it realistic for students to meet the requirement that they attend full time?

Krause:  It really goes to show how affordable our community colleges are in Tennessee. If you’re a student who has a zero family contribution and thus are receiving the full Pell [Grant] award, your Pell award will exceed the cost of a community college significantly. And the Pell award normally allows for the payment of books, etc. Our students who are in the most needy financial category would still receive other aid to assist with these other expenses.

R3.0: What’s been the response so far from Tennessee parents and students?

Krause: Absolutely overwhelming. Parents and students view this as a game change and a culture change. The most interesting and compelling reaction has been from the business community. Our business and employer leaders are fully on board with the Drive to 55 initiative, and their reaction has been exciting. They recognize it’s higher education for a very specific reason – to improve our workforce.

Just as an example I spoke last week to a group of about 300 people out in east Tennessee. Every hand in the room went up when I asked who knew about the Tennessee Promise, and then everyone started applauding.

R3.0: What will the biggest challenges in successfully implementing this program?

Krause: First and foremost is awareness. We cannot take for granted that students have heard about Tennessee Promise, so we are going to be heavily engaged in building relationships with guidance counselors who are a key part of this and ensuring that the seniors who are going to be our first Tennessee Promise group this fall are aware of that option.

The second challenge will be continuing to build linkages between higher education and the workforce. That’s what this is about – providing better economic opportunities and making sure that when our students enter higher education, they can transition seamlessly into the workplace.

R3.0: Are you aiming for a 100 percent college going rate?

Krause: We want every student to go without question. When you can tell a student that community college is free and the state is going to be there with you to cover these costs, you can really carry a new message to a group of students who had been maybe ruling themselves out of a college education.

But this is not just about financial aid. It’s about creating a success infrastructure for our students.

Like this idea? Tell the legislators in your state.