College plans put spotlight on Tennessee
Gov. Bill Haslam and his advisers like to say that Tennessee Promise changed the conversation parents and children have about going to college.
Three years after he introduced the landmark scholarship program, it’s conversations in statehouses around the country that are changing, placing the Volunteer State at the center of a national movement.
In 2014, Tennessee was the only state with a wide-reaching program that offered recent high school graduates the chance to go to community college without paying tuition.
Since then, several states — including Oregon, New York and Rhode Island — have followed that example, adopting or pursuing similar programs of their own. Former President Barack Obama pulled the issue into the national spotlight during a 2015 visit to Tennessee, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders thrust it into the heart of the presidential campaign.
Experts say Tennessee’s role as a trendsetter could help shape higher education policy for years as students move through the pipeline, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the increasingly popular model. The state’s move to expand tuition-free college to adult students, unveiled by Haslam last month during his State of the State address, seems certain to keep Tennessee at the forefront of the education debate.
“I like that states are coming up with their own paths for how to do this,” Haslam said in an interview with The Tennessean. “We’re excited about the progress we’re making in Tennessee and we think the results will prove that the effort is the right one.”
Early indicators have been encouraging. Last week, the state announced first time freshman enrollment in public higher education had increased by 13 percent since the program began enrolling students in 2014.
Tony Kinkel, president of Motlow State Community College, said he accepted his job and moved to Tennessee because he wanted to be a part of the Tennessee Promise roll-out.
Motlow’s Smyrna campus has become emblematic of the impact, with students parking on the grass and crowding classrooms to such a degree that the governor included funding in his latest budget proposal for a new building.
Kinkel said Tennessee Promise led to a swell of job applications, too.
“The word is getting out that Tennessee’s a great place to work if you’re in higher education,” Kinkel said. “There is no state in the country, none, that’s going to be doing more.”
A simple message
Haslam and others who have come to champion tuition-free college generally recognize a central problem. There aren’t enough educated applicants in the workforce to fill a new generation of technically complicated jobs.
Confronting that problem in Tennessee meant pumping hundreds of thousands of students into higher education. Tennessee Promise, which was based on a successful local program in Haslam’s hometown of Knoxville, was one of the first efforts under that mantle.
The program was designed to tackle two issues that keep students from pursuing a college degree: cost and intimidation. The success and durability of the model here and elsewhere probably rests on one word that addresses both challenges.
It’s simple, it’s enticing and it presents a striking contrast to the traditionally muddy messaging surrounding the application for financial aid.
“The simplicity of that and the clarity and the attempt to build trust with people in the state, I think these are very important reasons why these things are popular,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University who studies the impact of tuition-free college programs.
That message broke through for Hannah Williams, a sophomore using the scholarship at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin. She wants to continue her studies at the University of Tennessee’s flagship campus in Knoxville, but saw Tennessee Promise as a great way to mitigate the cost of a four year degree.
“Free money, why would you give up something like that?” she said. She said she knew college “was going to cost a lot of money, and so I looked into ways I could save as much as I could.”
Mike Krause, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and the founding director of Tennessee Promise, said the streamlined messaging surrounding the program was almost as important as the financial aid component.
Krause, who has become a something of a national spokesperson for the promise model, has talked to policy makers in several states about Tennessee Promise. His message is consistent.
Many low-income students using the Promise scholarship could have gotten enough federal aid to cover their tuition anyway. But no one was telling them in clear and simple terms.
“I think states who are considering promise programs need to be asking themselves fewer questions about financial aid mechanics and more questions about what messages are we sending to students about going to college,” Krause said.
Oregon, one of the states Krause consulted with, passed its own Oregon Promise in 2015. Early signs suggest the program has resonated.
Like Tennessee, Oregon saw a surge in the number of high school students going directly into community college.
“In an era when concrete guaranteed benefits from government programs can be hard for the public to see or discern ... this feels to many students and their families very real,” said Ben Cannon, the executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
Of course, there is fine print. While promise programs typically remove costs for going to class, students usually need extra money for textbooks, transportation and living expenses.
In Oregon, low-income students who have enough federal aid to cover tuition can get some state funding to cover additional costs.
Goldrick-Rab, a scholar and advocate for college affordability, said promise programs don’t need to be a cure-all. Instead, she said, they should be part of a multifaceted approach to helping low-income students.
“When you make tuition free, of course you’re not making all of college free,” she said. “We deal with all of those through other programs.”
Goldrick-Rab said a pivotal need for promise programs, particularly because the movement is so young, is more external research to explore their effectiveness.
“Every program that I have examined has had implementation issues, has needed ironing out,” she said. “Every program needs that help and support to be effective.”
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have begun tracking the different promise programs using a database. Laura Perna, who oversees that effort, said the team would likely move on to study the impact of the policy in the coming months as more of those programs move into maturity.
In Tennessee, the program is about three months away from a pivotal early test that is sure to have implications in Tennessee and beyond. The first wave of Tennessee Promise students will be eligible to graduate from community college in May.
“We want to see these Tennessee Promise students dramatically increase the percentage of Tennesseans with a certificate or degree,” Haslam said. “I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m waiting with anticipation to see how many promise students receive an associate’s degree.”
Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by ADAM TAMBURIN
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