TN Promise bad for four-year schools?

Community colleges say no

LIVINGSTON – Gov. Bill Haslam wants more students to go to college. It’s been a much stumped about topic in recent years that got a recent boost with the passing of the Tennessee Promise proposal.

The Promise, which was ceremoniously signed into law in May during a multi-stop tour-de- state – including Cookeville – allows any graduating high school senior to attend state community college or a college of applied technology for free come 2015. It’s a key part of Haslam’s Drive to 55, a goal to up the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees or certificates from 32 to 55 percent by 2025.

But now that the Promise is on the books, what does it mean for higher education in the Upper Cumberland? For businesses? And will it be harmful to four-year universities in terms of their enrollment?

To the latter, several at the community college – and even university – level say no. Volunteer State Community College President Jerry Faulkner told the UCBJ that he believes the Tennessee Promise is targeting an entirely new populous of students. Tennessee Tech President Philip Oldham tends to agree – to an extent.

“I think it’s definitely worth trying, but what attendance patterns it’s going to change, it’s premature to tell,” Oldham said. “We don’t think it’s going to have a negative impact on our incoming freshman class, since most of our freshmen select Tennessee Tech as their first-choice institution already. And there is the potential for us to pick up additional transfer students after a couple years, if Tennessee Promise is really successful.”

Retention is key

Tennessee is the first state to enact a program like the Promise, but there is some basis of comparison with Tennessee Achieves, Faulkner said, another last-dollar scholarship program available in 27 counties, including Fentress and Pickett in the UC. Last-dollar scholarships fund any leftover tuition and fees once all other aid has been applied.

Based on research, two-year programs can expect a 20-percent bump in freshman enrollment as a result of Tennessee Promise. At Vol State, which has a campus in Livingston, that equates to an additional 200-225 students starting in the fall 2015, Faulkner said.

Administrators don’t expect any capacity issues from the increased influx, per say – it’s more about actually retaining those students once they get to campus.

Already, too many students in Tennessee need remediation when entering college, courses that aim to help bolster basic academic skills needed for coursework. Mike Powell, director at Vol State Livingston, said that figure is upward of 70 percent statewide. And nationally, nearly 4 in 10 remedial students at the community college level never complete their remedial courses.

“We are aware that this may bring us students who are going to need some additional support, particularly during the first semester,” Faulkner said. “Students who have not previously thought they were going to college, because they thought they couldn’t afford it, and so maybe they have not been as rigorous in their high school preparation. This might also bring students who are perhaps first in their family to attend college.

“We’re trying to be sure that they get proper support during the early days of their college career,” he said.

Vol State officials say they take every step to ensure that happens. The Tennessee Promise makes an attempt to address that as well. Besides requiring students to enroll full time, maintain a 2.0 GPA and give eight hours of community service per semester, all Promise applicants receive built-in mentors, or volunteers on the local level who will help advise, encourage and keep students on task.

“That’s a really major part of the Tennessee Promise, one that I think is going to help these students be successful,” Faulkner said.

Whether or not enrollment at four-year universities will suffer has yet to be seen, but the Tennessee Promise is all but likely to increase the number of students who go on to complete four-year degrees. Oldham says those students typically do well – they are 18 percent more likely, Powell said, to finish their bachelor’s than those who are native university students.

“Students who get through a two- year degree and come to a four-year program, they do very well,” Oldham added. “It’s sort of like a filter. It’s a tight filter. The students who make it through the two-year program do well, but there are a lot of students who never make it through the two-year program.

“That’s the significant issue,” he said. “As a state, if we could effectively address that issue, that would be substantial. It’s possibly the financial piece, and the Tennessee Promise, that removes a lot of the financial burden, so that may be part of the answer.”


One part of the Tennessee Promise that Oldham wishes hadn’t been part of the answer is reduced HOPE lottery scholarship money for the first two years for four-year university students. To help bridge the last-dollar gap, those seeking two-year degrees will see an increase in their HOPE award – from $2,000 to $3,000 annually. But at four-year institutions, that new number will decrease to $3,500 annually, down from $4,000. HOPE eligible juniors and seniors will receive an increased award of $4,500 each year.

While a relatively modest decrease, Oldham said Tennessee Tech was already in the process of evaluating its scholarship distributions and will likely adjust upward the monetary levels for freshmen and sophomores.

“The decrease in the lottery scholarship is a little bit of a concern to us,” Oldham said. “But we’ve got flexibility with our internal scholarship dollars, so we factored that in.”

At the end of the day, he said Tech will just continue to monitor its enrollment patterns “pretty closely.”

“I would reiterate that I am supportive of it, and I’m very hopeful for it. I think any time you can lower the barriers to getting a college degree, it can be a beneficial thing,” Oldham said. “But there are some issues there that we’re going to have to continue to monitor and may require some additional action down the road.”

Beyond jobs

So far, chatter among UC businesses about the Promise has been light, even though one local employer, Tutco Inc. in Cookeville, was part of the initial discussions, even serving as a site for one of the seven roundtables Haslam held around the state with employers. Per Drive to 55, reports show by 2025, 55 percent of jobs in Tennessee will require a postsecondary credential or degree, although the premise behind the Promise can even go beyond that, Vol State’s Faulkner said.

“We sometimes forget that the advantages of education extend beyond work and career and earning capability,” he said. “The more educated the populous, the more likely they are to vote and be active in civic organizations. The more likely they are to volunteer. There’s even correlation that shows that the better educated, the better their health status.

“The positives I think are pretty clear. We really are excited about this opportunity.”

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Liz Engel is the editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. She can be reached at

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