Tennessee Promise year 2 marked by tweaks, not overhaul

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Tennessee Promise on Justin Short’s life.

The state’s innovative and trendsetting scholarship program, which has become one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature accomplishments, has enabled the Kingsport, Tenn., student to attend community college tuition-free. He says higher education, and a chance at a better life, would have been an impossible dream without it.

But attending college hasn’t been easy. The teenager struggled to make sense of remedial coursework, and he couldn’t afford to avoid a punishing work schedule that sometimes chipped away at his attention.

Still, Short remains determined to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree. In a recent series of text messages — the communication style of choice for many of his peers in the scholarship program — his youthful enthusiasm shone through the stress.

How did he feel about next semester, only a couple weeks away? It’s “on like Donkey Kong,” he said.

Going into its sophomore year, the trajectory of Tennessee Promise parallels Short’s journey. There have been challenges, but it appears to be aging well, according to interviews with several officials.

Experts tied the scholarship program to a surge of about 4,000 extra high school graduates who went to college in fall 2015, compared to the year before. And Tennessee Promise has repeatedly been singled out as a success story as more states — and the White House — mull their own programs to send students to college tuition-free.

That’s not to say Tennessee’s program isn’t evolving as it prepares to send a second crop of students into college this fall. But changes are being made with a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.

“We’re not looking to do any large overhaul,” said James Snider of the Tennessee Student Assistance Corporation, who helps students understand and navigate the program’s requirements.

Officials at the state and college levels said they are smoothing over details of the program. They hope to improve their approach to federal aid requirements and student morale, among other things, while the big picture stays the same: send thousands of high school graduates to community and technical colleges tuition-free.

Snider helped push one of the most significant changes to the program this year, based on what he called a “hiccup” with federal aid that led to some students losing the scholarship during year one.

Leaders have long cited the cumbersome Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which students must file to be Tennessee Promise-eligible, as a key barrier to the program. After filing their FAFSA, some students are required to verify their applications, which can be an especially complicated ordeal for families that are unfamiliar with the process of applying for and going to college.

Last year, some students failed to complete their verification by the Aug. 1 deadline and lost the scholarship. So the corporation, which oversees the financial elements of Tennessee Promise, relaxed the rules this year, meaning students only needed to file paperwork to start — not finish — the process by the verification deadline.

New federal rules surrounding the FAFSA that go into effect this fall are expected to streamline the process for the vast majority of students, allowing them to use older, more accessible tax data to submit their applications months ahead of time.

Mike Krause, the executive director of Tennessee Promise, called that change, announced by the Obama administration in 2015, “an incredible win for students.”

“That is going to change things dramatically for this program. In a good way,” Krause said. “FAFSA and the FAFSA verification process represent a hurdle for students, particularly low-income students.”

To capitalize on that change this fall, tnAchieves, the state’s partner organization for Tennessee Promise, will begin pushing high school seniors and their counselors to file the FAFSA in October, before they need to apply for the scholarship. Krissy DeAlejandro, the executive director of tnAchieves, predicted that moving the process earlier could mean more kids ultimately wind up going to college.

Elsewhere, many changes have been based on lessons learned about the best way to work with teenagers, particularly those who are not familiar with the college process. Tennessee Promise was designed to appeal to students who were the first in their families to pursue higher education.

During the first year of the program, one lesson came through loud and clear at several different levels: When it comes to communication, more is better.

Early feedback from students and their parents urged more reminders and messages as students work through the series of scholarship requirements, including meetings and community service. So Snider’s team has doubled down on text messages and emails, sending many more out during year two.

“From some of the students’ perspectives they might consider it over-communicating,” Snider said with a laugh.

The second class of Tennessee Promise students should begin to notice more communication when they arrive on campus this fall, as well. In 2015, the first class of Tennessee Promise students arrived at college to find overflowing parking lots and hallways packed with older, more experienced students.

This fall, the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community and technical colleges, has laid the groundwork for a cheerier welcome that might ease the intimidation factor as students adjust to their new surroundings.

Board of Regents Chancellor David Gregory directed each of the state’s community and technical colleges to develop special programming at the beginning of the semester to welcome Tennessee Promise students to campus. School staff will hang special banners and pass out free sunglasses, an illustration of the theme, “My Future’s So Bright.”

“Many of them are first-generation college students, and we want them to know that we’re glad they’re here and that help is available by just asking for it,” Gregory said in a statement.

Starting this year, the push for more communication reached past students in colleges and high schools. Staff members with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission introduced the program to eighth-graders across the state this spring, and Krause, the Tennessee Promise director, said those efforts would become more intense as the program moves into maturity.

“Ultimately, we’d like to be able to engage the students at fifth and sixth grade,” he said. “The reality is the conversation around going to college doesn’t start in the junior year of high school.”

Tennessee Promise by the numbers

$10.6 million: Estimated cost to the state for sending Tennessee Promise students to school during the 2015-16 school year.

$361.1 million: Size of the endowment for the Tennessee Promise scholarship. Lottery reserves will be added to the endowment as they become available.

$1.3 million: State funding, provided by two rounds of grants, to bankroll college-level improvements related to Tennessee Promise.

16,291: Number of Tennessee Promise students who enrolled in college last fall.

80.6: percent of those students re-enrolled this spring.

59,635: Students who applied to use the Tennessee Promise scholarship during the 2016-17 school year. Although many of those students will decide to go to a university or pursue another option, officials expect more than 18,000 of them will ultimately use the scholarship.

By Adam Tamburin, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee



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