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Business Officer Magazine

Promises Kept

Tennessee pays the bill for high school seniors who head to college.

By Karla Hignite

When the first cohort of Tennessee Promise scholarship recipients enter associate's degree programs this fall, the Tennessee Board of Regents anticipates a significant increase of additional students attending the state's community colleges, says Kenyatta Lovett, the board's assistant vice chancellor for community college initiatives. The program, which launched in fall 2014, pledges to all eligible Tennessee high school seniors two years of free tuition at any of the state's community colleges, colleges of applied technology, or other institutions offering associate's degree programs. This "last-dollar scholarship" pays all remaining tuition and fees not covered by the Federal Pell Grants, HOPE scholarship, or other state student-assistance funds. (Read also "Picking Up the Pace of the Completion Agenda" in the July/August 2015 issue of Business Officer magazine.)

Tennessee Promise is an expansion of similar efforts that have been taking place through the nonprofit Tennessee Achieves and other entities throughout the state that focus on increasing higher education opportunities, notes Lovett. Funding for Tennessee Promise comes from the state's lottery reserve funds, currently in excess of $300 million.

Support in Place

All high school seniors who want to participate apply for the program, specifying their top three institutions of choice. Applicants must then attend several informational meetings and complete their FAFSA paperwork. Of the nearly 60,000 students who applied last fall, more than half have adhered to deadlines and requirements to remain in the program. "We are trying to keep the roughly 30,000 in the pipeline moving through the process to convert applicants to registrants for the fall 2015 semester," says Lovett. A network of volunteer mentors across the state is helping to keep students on track.

In addition to assistance from mentors, individual institutions are reaching out to the students who expressed interest in attending to let them know how to proceed with enrollment and registration. A summer bridge program is also in place to help students prepare for campus culture. While there are no stipulations on what students may study, they are required to complete eight hours of community service for each term enrolled and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to remain a scholarship recipient, notes Lovett. "Once this first cohort begins classes this fall, we will be looking three years out to gauge the contribution of this program to boosting above current trends the three-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students."

The board of regents is implementing various supports for students to help ensure their success and timely progression. One is a co-requisite model. Previously, students in need of academic remediation were encouraged to take developmental education prior to enrolling in credit-bearing courses. Now students can address remediation needs while in their first year of college coursework, explains Lovett.

"The primary driver behind this change was disengagement. Previously students might spend a year taking courses with no credits to show for it. Without an opportunity to engage in subjects of interest to them, many simply stopped attending," notes Lovett. A remediation initiative is also underway in many high schools. So far 12,000 students have taken remedial math at the high school level. Of those, between 60 to 70 percent eliminate their need for further remediation once they enroll in community college, says Lovett.

Reconnecting With Adult Learners

A related effort to Tennessee Promise is Tennessee Reconnect, an initiative of the state's governor aimed at driving degree completion among adult learners to help them gain new skills and advance in the workplace. Primary focus for this fall will be providing eligible adults the opportunity to earn a diploma or certificate at any one of the state's colleges of applied technology, notes Lovett. "When you look across both higher education systems in our state, adult learners account for about 30 percent of the student population but more than half of the earned credentials," explains Lovett. "This is proof that if you can attract and retain adult learners, you are likely to boost overall completion rates."

With adult learner populations in decline among the state's community colleges in recent years, the board of regents is working closely with the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning to conduct assessments for institutions to find out how to improve service and resources to adult learners. Like Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Reconnect is based on grant-aid incentives. Both efforts fall under the state's "Drive to 55" program aimed at getting 55 percent of Tennessee's citizens to obtain a postsecondary credential by 2025.

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

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