College Enrollment Jumps Under TN Promise

Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean

10:01 a.m. CDT September 12, 2015

Three weeks after thousands of Tennessee Promise students arrived on campus for the first time, administrators across the state are getting a clearer picture of how many students actually followed through with the program and how dramatic their impact will be.

Enrollment is up at many of the state’s 13 community colleges, and almost all of them have seen sharp gains in the number of students enrolled with a full course load, a requirement of the full-tuition scholarship program.

The 13 community colleges have seen a 6 percent jump in full-time students this year on average, according to a census taken on the 14th day of classes. At a number of schools, that number reaches even higher: Motlow State Community College has had full-time growth of almost 20 percent, to 3,541, while there was a 14 percent jump, to 5,373, at Volunteer State Community College.

That number is significant, administrators say, because full-time students have a clearer path to success. Students who only take a class or two at a time are much more likely to drop out before they get a degree.

“We’ve always struggled with getting our students, particularly with our students right out of high school, to take more classes and graduate on time,” said Warren Nichols, the vice chancellor of community colleges for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

It will still take some time to determine exactly how much of that growth was driven by Tennessee Promise, according to Mike Krause, the program’s executive director. But administrators at the college level say the impact is obvious.

Krause said the number of full-time community college students coming straight from high school jumped 14 percent this year, to about 13,500, according to an early estimate. He still expects the full number of Tennessee Promise students, which also will include students at technical colleges and some universities, to fall between 16,000 and 18,000

“These are the early indicators you want to see at this point,” he said. “Tennessee Promise really turned out to be a decision that many students and families thought was their best path.”

Growth comes with challenges

Ripple effects of the sudden growth have been mostly positive, Nichols said. But it hasn’t come without challenges.

At Motlow State’s Smyrna campus, which is bearing the brunt of the college’s growth, “they are bursting at the seams,” Nichols said. The parking lot there has become so packed that students have started parking in the grass.

Tony Kinkel, the new president at Motlow, is lobbying for a third building on the packed Smyrna campus, but that is still several years away. He met with his deputies Friday to discuss plans to accommodate the growth. They’re taking steps to schedule classes on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re taking drastic measures,” Kinkel said. “We just have to think differently to grapple with that kind of growth.”

But Kinkel, who said he came to Tennessee this year to be part of Tennessee Promise, said he is glad to confront those challenges.

“It would be an even bigger problem if you had parking lots you couldn’t fill,” he said.

Universities see a drop

While Tennessee Promise is boosting enrollment and excitement at community college campuses, early enrollment numbers suggest that it has siphoned students away from some four-year schools.

Enrollment is down at several state universities at small rates that mirror national trends, but one University of Tennessee campus saw a more significant drop. Early estimates suggest freshman enrollment at UT Martin in West Tennessee is down around 13 percent, according to UT system President Joe DiPietro.

“Those are the numbers. None of us are happy about it,” he said during an interview last week. “The UT Martin community understands that everybody’s job is recruiting now.”

DiPietro said administrators in Martin are working to counter the drop by recruiting students from nearby counties in Kentucky. They also are working to beef up a dual-enrollment program that might pull in high school students who want to earn early college credit.

Universities in the UT and TBR systems have been ramping up efforts to entice Tennessee Promise students to transfer to a four-year school after community college.

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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