Ask government officials or higher education experts about Tennessee Promise and you’re likely to hear them echo the same words.
It’s a game changer.
The state’s community and technical colleges are preparing for the arrival of thousands of Tennessee Promise students this fall. And while four-year colleges aren’t at the center of the conversation, they face new challenges and opportunities as the scholarship program reshapes the state’s higher education landscape.
Public and private universities across Tennessee are starting new initiatives and reinforcing existing ones in response to the revolutionary scholarship program.
“We can’t do all the things we did three years ago,” said Andrew Oppmann, spokesman for Middle Tennessee State University. “We’re trying to be a part of the change, not just let the change wash over us.”
Here’s a closer look at four high-profile efforts.
Looking elsewhere to beef up enrollment
About 18,000 high school graduates are expected to use Tennessee Promise in this fall, many of them at community and technical colleges. Initial estimates indicated that the program would redirect about 1,500 students who would have gone to a four-year school to attend community or technical college instead.
“It’s not expected to be a huge number at any given university,” said John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the state’s largest network of public colleges. “But there will be some.
“The universities definitely are looking at a variety of things to avoid a loss of enrollment.”
Tennessee Promise gives new urgency to some efforts that have been under way for years.
Because of lower birthrates throughout the 1990s, there is a shrinking pool of graduating high school seniors. To keep enrollment numbers steady, Tennessee universities have been reaching past the state line.
This spring, MTSU hired an admissions counselor who focuses on out-of-state recruitment. For the first time, recruiters are visiting Georgia, Alabama and Kentucky to tout unique offerings like the Department of Recording Industry.
“There are only so many students inside the state,” said Wendi Pelfrey, interim director of admissions. “We’re looking at ways to get more students interested in MTSU.”
The percentage of out-of-state students at public universities in Tennessee has been climbing for several years, according to data kept by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
Those students generate more revenue for the institutions. Most out-of-state students pay tuition rates about three times higher than Tennessee students.
The number of international students, who also pay out-of-state rates, has more than doubled in recent years, growing from 2.3 percent of TBR universities’ enrollment in the fall of 2010 to 5 percent in 2014, according to THEC.
Offering Tennessee Promise at universities
Tennessee Promise will pay eligible students’ tuition at community and technical colleges, but students still can use the scholarship to pursue associate degrees at 20 four-year schools sprinkled around the state.
Schools with approved associate programs in Middle Tennessee include Tennessee State University, Austin Peay State University, Trevecca Nazarene University and Cumberland University.
Many of those schools have advertised their Tennessee Promise eligibility, hoping to lure students who want a slashed price tag for a four-year school. But using the scholarship at a four-year school comes with a cost.
If students choose to use Tennessee Promise at one of those schools, the scholarship would only cover the typical tuition for a community college, or about $2,079 per semester. Students will need to cover the rest or rely on outside scholarships.
Tennessee Promise will cover about half of the cost of attending APSU, according to school spokesman Bill Persinger. Still, he said, the option is appealing to a group of Tennessee Promise students craving the “traditional college experience,” from dorm life to athletics.
APSU, like many other eligible universities, has included information on Promise-eligible programs on its admissions website. Recruiters have also brought the option to prospective students.
More than 1,100 students who are still eligible for Tennessee Promise have indicated they are interested in attended APSU, according to state data.
Officials at Cumberland University have taken things a step further by lowering tuition rates for associate degree programs to match the Tennessee Promise scholarship amount, meaning that students who go there wouldn’t have to pay extra for classes.
Eddie Pawlawski, Cumberland’s executive vice president, said that decision was made after Tennessee Promise was signed into law in April 2014. Administrators had to act fast to set policy for the upcoming academic year.
“We were in some ways looking at the tea leaves,” Pawlawski said. “It’s a very intriguing process right now.”
The policy might change once administrators get a chance to see the program in action, he said.
Lebanon student Hannah Leonard grew up seeing Cumberland’s clock tower. She originally planned to use Tennessee Promise at Volunteer State Community College, but when she found out she could use it at her hometown college, she said the decision was a “no-brainer.”
“It is a great school. It is much, much closer to my house,” she said in a text message. “I’m super excited to be a (Cumberland University) Bulldog.”
Courting transfer students
While Tennessee Promise might be peeling some students away from four-year schools in the short-term, the program could provide those institutions with a growing pipeline of transfer students starting in two years.
Many universities already have taken steps to recruit transfer students for the back half of their bachelor’s degrees. The TBR and University of Tennessee systems joined forces in 2011 to designate dozens of community college majors whose credits would automatically transfer to any public university in the state.
Over the last three years, MTSU added four recruiters who focus on transfer students. Austin Young, 21, is transferring his credits from Roane State Community College to MTSU this fall.
He hadn’t initially planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree, but changed his mind after an MTSU recruiter visited his campus. He began planning his transfer a year ahead of time.
“It was very early,” he said.
MTSU this year introduced a dual admissions program that allows community college students to start planning the details of their transfer from the moment they enroll. Transfer recruiters are ramping up community college visits in an effort to tap into the Tennessee Promise population.
Under the dual admissions program, students at any of the state’s 13 community colleges essentially will become an MTSU student in advance. Those students get an MTSU ID, access to campus and an MTSU adviser who will help them map out courses that will make their transition to Murfreesboro seamless.
TSU has taken similar steps to strengthen its efforts at community colleges. Last year, the university established the Office of Community College Initiatives and hired a small staff that works to admit community college students to the university’s flagship programs ahead of time.
“Once a student gets one degree then they’re more likely to get a second degree,” said Mark G. Hardy, TSU vice president for academic affairs. “Particularly if we do some recruiting.”
MTSU, TSU and APSU are guaranteeing scholarships for transfer students who meet certain academic standards during their time at community college.
MTSU this spring announced an aggressive move to recruit high school students even before they are targeted by Tennessee Promise. Eligible high school students will be able to take two college classes for free, as long as they have an Internet connection.
Through dual enrollment, which gives high school students access to campus and their own MTSU IDs, students can earn college and high school credits simultaneously by taking MTSU classes on campus or online.
And admissions staffers adjusted their messaging this year in response to Tennessee Promise, which attracted applications from 90 percent of high school seniors.
Recruiters working with high school students purposefully emphasized the long-term value of an MTSU education and the various scholarships and grants that chip away at the cost.
“I don’t know that we would be doing anything different even if there weren’t these external things going on,” said Mike Boyle, dean of MTSU’s University College, which houses dual enrollment. “I think it’s just the perfect storm if I can use a very old cliché.
“It’s kind of fun to come to work and have all these new initiatives going on.”
About the project
This is the sixth installment in a year-long series on Tennessee Promise, the state’s plan to provide community college tuition-free to eligible high school graduates. On the fourth Sunday of every month, The Tennessean will provide an in-depth look at the program’s progress and its impact.
About Tennessee Promise
Tennessee Promise is a scholarship that covers tuition at Tennessee’s community and technical colleges for eligible graduating high school seniors. It is a last-dollar model, meaning the state only covers the cost of tuition that is left after federal and state aid is applied.