SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — When Barack Obama unveiled his bill for America’s College Promise in January 2015, one of the models upon which the proposal was based came from the example set by the Tennessee Board of Regents, a collection of 13 community colleges and six four-year universities. Recognizing that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require some level of postsecondary education, Tennessee passed the Complete College Tennessee Act in 2010.
The CCTA, also known as the Drive to 55, looks to ensure that 55 percent of Tennessee’s population will have a college degree or certification by 2025. One of the key implementation aspects of this plan has been to provide two years of free education via the Tennessee Promise scholarship at either a Tennessee Board of Regents–affiliated community college or at a Tennessee Applied College of Technology. The CCTA, which acknowledges the tension between the need for a more highly skilled Tennessean population while also dealing with less funding for higher education, shifts the focus of educational funding to performance-based outcomes and leveraging a new state funding formula. This funding is based on the principle that investing in a better-educated workforce will ultimately lead to economic gains for the state.
“IQ is not distributed according to income,” said Anthony Wise, president of Pellissippi State Community College and one of the major forces behind the Tennessee Drive to 55 movement. “Education means a better life.” Wise spoke at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention. The Tennessee Promise, the scholarship that grants free tuition, is available to students who graduate from high school starting this year. To be eligible for the scholarships, students must meet the necessary requirements, including FAFSA completion, GPA maintenance, attendance at a community mentoring program, and community service each semester.
The free tuition component of the CCTA has garnered the most national attention of any of its provisions. But Tennessee has already achieved great success from its initiatives. In the five years since the CCTA went into effect, the community colleges affiliated with the Tennessee Board of Regents have nearly doubled their completion rates, moving from 669 degrees granted in 2009 (out of approximately 10,000 students) to 1,286 degrees granted in 2014 (out of also approximately 10,000 students).
So what are some of the key factors that contribute to Tennessee’s success? Wise explained that officials at the Board of Regents community colleges:
- Implemented five-year DACUM curriculum evaluations. One of the immediate considerations for the Tennessee Board of Regents was to ensure that quality was not sacrificed to increase the number of students receiving degrees. Standardized learning outcomes were developed for all colleges during a two-day intensive on Developing a Curriculum, a process that designs curricula based on skills needed for the job markets represented by each major or concentration. Each concentration or major offered at a community college was required to undergo this DACUM training and adjust its curriculum accordingly. Finally, Tennessee has pledged to continue this DACUM training on a five-year review schedule to ensure that all skills and learning outcomes are up-to-date and applicable.
- Required FAFSA completion. To be eligible for the Tennessee Promise scholarship, students must complete the FAFSA. In 2014, the FAFSA completion rate in Tennessee was 62 percent, up a full 18 percent from the year before and nearly 20 percent higher than the next highest state completion rate. Indeed, the next highest growth rate for FAFSA completion for any state was 2 percent.
- Shifted focus from enrollment rates to completion rates. While enrollment and completion rates necessarily go hand-in-hand, the Tennessee Board of Regents focuses primarily on what it can do to retain students through graduation. Focusing on community factors, such as ensuring that students who begin their associate degree at an urban campus location are able to finish out their degree at an urban campus location, helped increase retention rates. Ensuring appropriate funding for “wrap-around services” that guide nontraditional-aged students or first-generation college students through the admission, registration and enrollment processes also improved retention. These wrap-around services help reduce the transaction barrier some students face with enrollment and/or graduation forms.
- Focused on the community impact. A key aspect to Tennessee’s success that is not yet reflected in America’s College Promise is community engagement for both students and community members alike. Tennessee Promise students are required to receive mentoring from a member of the community, as well as provide at least one day of community service for each semester they benefit from the scholarship. Engaging local community members in the Tennessee Promise scholarship helps the community see the ongoing benefits of the CCTA.
- Created a pathway of guaranteed admission to university. One of the major incentives for students with the scholarship, besides the promise of free education, is the premium consideration students who complete their associate degree receive for transferring to a four-year university. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville even offers a partnership for success geared to help students complete the associate degree and transition smoothly into the four-year system. College Promise scholarship students who transfer from a community college to a four-year university must maintain an average GPA of 3.2.
- Supported learners with appropriate technology. In the Strategies for Teaching Excellence Program employed by several of the Tennessee community colleges, iPads were made available for individual student use while in the classroom. This led to a 50 percent improvement in student grades for STEM classes such as chemistry. Incorporating the use and practice of appropriate technology in the classroom helps to develop the skill sets students might need for future employment opportunities as well.
- Engaged adult learners by designing for-credit credentials for employees. The Tennessee Board of Regents has partnered with such organizations as Denso, Keurig and Newell Rubbermaid to develop for-credit certifications for current and prospective employees. These certification programs currently have a 94 percent job placement rate for graduates. By partnering with companies, Tennessee is able to develop curricula that specifically supply prospective employees with the skill sets necessary for career success. For adult learners looking to advance their career, these certifications nearly guarantee future employment opportunities.