College tuition program nets big gains in enrollment

College tuition program nets big gains in enrollment

(Tenn.) A first-of-its-kind college tuition program is showing huge gains in its inaugural year with the number of high school graduates enrolling full-time in the state’s community colleges jumping 14 percent this fall.

The increase in student enrollment reflects an estimated 15,000 members of the class of 2015 who are taking advantage of the Tennessee Promise program – launched just last fall by Gov. Bill Haslam. The scholarship program makes Tennessee the first in the nation to pay full tuition costs for any high school graduate who enters a two-year college or trade school.

Tennessee reportedly also saw the largest growth of any state in Free Application for Federal Student Aid completions from February 2014 to February 2015, according to data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. As a requirement of participating in Tennessee Promise, students must also submit a FAFSA application.

A year ago 42 percent of high school seniors in the state, or 31,000 students, filed the federal student-aid application, the commission reported. A year later, about 61 percent or closer to 45,000 students filed – an increase of about 18 percent.

“For a lot of families in Tennessee, it’s changed the conversation,” Mike Krause, tapped by the governor to run the program, told Inside Higher Ed recently. “Students completing the FAFSA are finding out for the first time that they have an aid package that will allow them to attend a four-year [institution]. It’s completely changed the conversation for hundreds of students. This is a culture change.”

Calls for providing free community college to more students are being made across the country, with President Barack Obama pushing the idea at the national level and several more states considering following in Tennessee’s footsteps.

Oregon just this summer passed legislation drastically reducing the costs for its high school graduates to attend community college to $50 per term, a far cry from the $1,500 it now costs to attend full-time.

Tennessee Promise is the cornerstone of Haslam’s ‘Drive to 55’ initiative to raise the state college graduation rate from 35 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025, producing a larger, more qualified workforce and attracting employers to the state. His Drive to 55 Alliance brings together private sector partners, leaders and non-profits, according to the website, 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.”

Haslam based his initiative on data suggesting that in the year 2025, 55 percent of Tennesseans will need a certificate or degree beyond high school to get a job.

Class of 2015 graduates are the first students able to take advantage of the incentive. To be eligible for funding under the initiative, students must meet deadlines for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as well as college applications, complete eight hours of community service, attend two meetings and agree to work with an assigned mentor to monitor progress at the college level.

Employees at businesses, government agencies, schools and organizations throughout the state are urged to serve as volunteer mentors to those students – a requirement under the program.

Students who qualify for other financial aid programs (not including loans and work-study) can use Tennessee Promise funds to make up any difference between what financial aid covers and actual tuition costs. For students with no financial help at all, the program will pay the entire cost of tuition.

It has been estimated that Tennessee Promise will cost $34 million annually, to be paid for by combining $300 million in lottery reserves with an existing $47 million endowment created last year by the General Assembly.

In addition to paying for two-year college tuition, Tennessee Promise can also be used at any of the state’s 27 colleges of applied technology or any in-state independent or four-year public university offering an associate’s degree. more