As states and higher education institutions work to rebound from postsecondary enrollment declines, millions of potential college students face major access and affordability challenges.
In response, states and localities have created free tuition programs, often called “college promise” programs, designed to boost the attainment of postsecondary degrees and credentials. Forty-eight states have at least one local or statewide program, according to College Promise, a national advocacy organization that supports promise programs. Legislators and legislative staff explored the benefits, challenges and nuances of the programs at NCSL’s 2022 Higher Education Institute held Oct. 10-11 in Nashville, Tenn.
We really think this is a talent pipeline opportunity. —Rosye Cloud, College Promise
The structure, scale and funding of promise programs vary dramatically by state. Some programs are smaller and locally funded, often by private philanthropic donations. Other broader programs cover thousands of eligible students across entire states and are funded with millions of dollars from state appropriations. Most programs focus on two-year degrees and credentials at community colleges, although some programs have expanded to include four-year degrees. Another key distinction lies in the disbursement and generosity of aid. Many programs are known as “last-dollar,” which means they apply funding only after a student has utilized other forms of financial aid, such as the federal Pell Grant.
“The truth is, there is a lot of variability. Last-dollar is quite common, using the federal system, the Pell system,” Rosye Cloud, a senior leader with College Promise, says. “That is really what I would say is the least expensive type of model that is leveraged most often. You have a lot of fully privately funded models as well.”
College Promise has created a web database of all promise programs across the country. The database allows users to find and compare programs by location and type.
“This is accessible and public to everyone, to students, to their parents, to their families and their counselors and to researchers as well,” says Michelle Cooper, engagement and strategic initiatives manager with College Promise.
‘Huge Gains’ in Tennessee
Attendees also learned about Tennessee’s statewide last-dollar program, Tennessee Promise, which covers tuition and fees for associate degree programs or certificate programs at colleges of applied technology. Tennessee created the program via legislation in 2014 and began offering the scholarship a year later.
“Right off the bat, we saw huge gains from Tennessee Promise. We became No. 1 in the nation for FAFSA completion,” says Wendy Blackmore, director of operations for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. “Our community colleges also saw a jump in enrollment among students under the age of 25, a 7.2% increase. We also had an overall college-going rate bump of 5.9% between 2014 and 2015. More students across our state began to think college is affordable and college is attainable.”
The program, which costs the state about $30 million annually, has enrolled more than 108,000 students over the past seven years. Despite this reach, some obstacles remain. For example, students who wish to attend part time are not currently eligible for Tennessee Promise.
“A majority of our community college student body population is made up of part-time students,” Blackmore says. “At Nashville State Community College, 56% of the student body goes part time—students who can’t qualify for Tennessee Promise. Research says that going full time will help you complete your degree on time, graduate on time and graduate with less debt. That is true; however, it is not a reality for low-income students. They do not have the luxury of being able to go to school full time and also support their families. So we have got to figure out a way to better serve part-time students.”
In 2017, the state created the Tennessee Reconnect Grant specifically to address the needs of adult learners. Part-time students are eligible for Reconnect Grants.
Positive Workforce Connections
Tennessee Promise also continues to focus on creating positive workforce connections for students enrolled in postsecondary education.
“When we launched and took Tennessee Promise to our Legislature, it was really framed as workforce development,” says Graham Thomas, with tnAchieves, the partnering organization to the Tennessee Promise program. “We want to make sure that we have a sustainable workforce to keep our current employers here and growing, and bring new business and industry in.”
Thomas says Tennessee Promise has strong partnerships with large employers across the state. “We see that about 35% of our mentors come from business and industry, which, again, is giving access to those students to learn about all those different things they can do with a college degree.”
Tennessee’s work on merging workforce development with postsecondary education mirrors a national focus as well.
“There is a lot of, rightfully so, criticism that college promise is only focused on degrees. That is not the case,” says Cloud, the senior leader with College Promise. “An industry certification or license is also part of the mix for us. We really think this is a talent pipeline opportunity.”