The Tennessee Promise

Posted by Katy Hollyday on August 10, 2016 at 11:50 AM

Tennessee is being widely recognized for its commitment to increasing access to public higher education and preparing its workforce for the challenges of tomorrow. In 2013, Tennessee Gov. Haslam launched his Drive to 55 Initiative, an initiative aimed at increasing the amount Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by 2025. At the core of this initiative lies The Tennessee Promise, which provides a last-dollar* scholarship to all eligible Tennessee high school graduates covering two years of tuition at Tennessee’s public community and technical colleges. Furthermore, this has been achieved without a tax increase.

The Tennessee Promise was proposed and implemented after the success of very similar local initiatives. Before Gov. Haslam was elected Governor of Tennessee, he was the mayor of Knoxville. In this capacity in 2009, he worked with Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale to develop Knox Achieves, a Promise program driven through a non-profit organization that would cover tuition for up to two years at any Tennessee public community or technical college for any Knoxville County High School graduate. The program instantly showed signs of success in increasing student enrollment in state community and technical colleges. Soon after, the program was renamed TnAchieves and expanded to 20 counties across the state. By 2013, 40 percent of Tennessee high school graduates had access to the Promise program.

TnAchieves saw fantastic results. The program helped increase enrollment for first-generation and low-income students. Sixty-five percent of students who receiving the scholarship were first-generation college students while 70 percent were low-income. And while first-generation and low-income students often face the highest risk of dropping out, program participants were 40% more likely to succeed than the state average. This success help pave the way for the Tennessee Promise.

As Governor, Haslam introduced the Tennessee Promise to the legislature and the state in his fourth state of the state address on February 3, 2014.  He said, “the Tennessee Promise is an ongoing commitment to every student – from every kindergartner to every high school senior…Through the Tennessee Promise, we are fighting the rising cost of higher education, and we are raising our expectations as a state. We are committed to making a clear statement to families that education beyond high school is a priority in the state of Tennessee.”  In May, Governor Haslam signed the Tennessee Promise into law and efforts to implement the promise for the class of 2015 began immediately.  

By the initial registration deadline of November 2014, 58,000 people or 90 percent of the Tennessee high school graduating class applied for the program. Subsequently, more than 43,000 attended their first meeting with a volunteer mentor, an important requirement of the program.  The Tennessee Promise also spurred record Free Application for Federal Student Aid applications from Tennessee as 61 percent of graduating high school applied in 2015, compared to 43 percent in 2014.  This was the highest increase throughout the United States and has helped keep down the state cost of the program, and well as benefited students who might not have applied for financial aid even though they were eligible. 

The estimated annual cost of the Promise is $34 million per year, and is funded without raising taxes by reallocating existing state resources. An initial transfer of $300 million was drawn from the Tennessee Lottery for Education Account into a new endowment to support the Tennessee Promise.

The program is also designed to increase student success rates through a statewide network of volunteer mentors, with one assigned to each student to provide guidance through the college application and enrollment process.  According to published reports, almost 7,400 mentors went through training last year, or about one for every eight Tennessee Promise students who originally applied. Furthermore, the Tennessee Promise requires beneficiaries to complete eight hours of community service.  In total, Tennessee Promise students completed approximately 180,000 community service hours in 2015.

Although still very new, the Tennessee Promise is already demonstrating its potential for great success. It’s commitment to modernize a workforce while helping financially support those most marginalized by the current higher education system is an idea everyone should get behind. In addition, the financing of the Tennessee Promise without a tax increase shows that the money needed to create Promise programs already exists in governments across the country. Now, it is simply a matter of getting Congress and state legislatures across the United States to prioritize access to an affordable quality higher education for all capable and willing students.

* Tennessee Promise is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it will cover college costs not met from Pell, HOPE, or TSAA. 

Article by George Markarian. It includes information provided by David Vines, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

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