Tennessee Promise second-year data likely to be impressive

What percentage of students returning for their second year at Tennessee community colleges through the Tennessee Promise program would make Gov. Bill Haslam believe his innovative program is a success?

One in five? One in four? One in three? One in two?

If Volunteer State Community College is any indication, nearly 60 percent of students may have returned for their second year this fall.

Data shows that’s how many came back for their second year at the Nashville school, a spokesman told the city’s WTVF. Final, official numbers for fall enrollment across the state won’t be available for about two more weeks, a Tennessee Higher Education Commission spokeswoman said Wednesday.

While those numbers surely made Haslam smile, so did the record number of applicants — 60,780 — who signed up for the “last-dollar” program in 2016 for entry in the fall of 2017. That exceeds the 58,286 applicants in 2014 and the 59,621 in 2015.

“With this record number of applicants and a number of other indicators,” the governor said in news release, “it’s clear that Tennessee Promise is changing the conversation around going to college in Tennessee.”

Haslam first proposed the program in his State of the State address in 2014. Its aim is that state government will make up the difference between tuition at its 13 community colleges and 27 applied technology centers and the various means of financial aid available to the student.

The program is part of his Drive to 55 campaign to raise the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary degrees or certificates to 55 percent by 2025.

Last fall, when the first Tennessee Promise students matriculated, freshman enrollment went up 25 percent at community colleges and 20 percent at technical colleges. That lifted the state’s rate of students going to college 4.6 points in one year to 62.5 percent.

In the spring, THEC announced that the schools had an average retention rate of 80.6 percent of the 16,291 who used the program. That included a 95 percent retention rate for students at technology centers. The 78.5 percent retention rate for community colleges was a slight increase from the 78 percent fall-to-spring retention rate before the dawn of the program, and was even more impressive, according to THEC officials, because enrollment surges often wind up with more students opting not to continue with college.

Chattanooga State Community College hit the average retention rate almost on the button as 78.4 percent of its students re-enrolled from fall to spring. Cleveland State trailed the state average with 74.5 percent.

(The large gap between the number of applicants and those who wind up using the program occurs because many students wind up opting for four-year schools or making other decisions about their education.)

Although the deadline for students to sign up for Tennessee Promise for fall 2017 passed on Nov. 1, the program is still seeking to fill its goal of 9,000 mentors to help students with their transition from high school to college.

The deadline is today.

Imagine being a part of a first-generation college student’s success. The idea of working with students who, without Tennessee Promise, might never have had the opportunity to go to college, should be compelling for any Tennessean who wants to see a more educated population.

Nancy Patterson, vice president for college advancement and public relations at Chattanooga State and a program mentor herself, praised both Tennessee Promise and its mentor requirement.

“It’s been such a wonderful program for a variety of reasons,” she said. “And it’s great the community has been asked to be involved in the program — how helpful it is for the students. The mentor piece is unique.”

Although we admired Haslam for his bold move at the launch of Tennessee Promise, we were worried about how many students would use the “last-dollar” program to have one more carefree year of “high school” at the expense of the state.

We’re sure some did exactly that, but we are impressed at the potential second-year re-enrollment numbers. We have no way of knowing how many students wouldn’t be there without the program, but we know it must be a significant number.

If those students, in turn, go on to a four-year school and graduate or leave the community college or technical college with a degree or a certification, their chances of success — at a well-paying job, at raising a successful family, at living a meaningful life — will have increased dramatically.

 by Clint Cooper, ccooper@timesfreepress.com

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