NASHVILLE, TN (WJHL) – Gov. Bill Haslam created Tennessee Promise to get more students to attend college, but two years after the start of the program, fewer students are enrolled at the state’s community colleges, according to an analysis of enrollment data.
Tennessee has dedicated roughly $40 million to Tennessee Promise in its first two years. The program offers high school graduates two years of community or technical college free of tuition and fees.
State officials say the program has sparked an increase in the number of high school graduates going to college, but preliminary enrollment numbers for this year show that increase is not enough to compensate for another group of students who are now taking a pass on college.
The state’s enrollment data shows there are roughly 1,400 fewer students attending its community colleges today than in 2014. Although colleges experienced a slight overall increase after Tennessee Promise’s first year, eight of the state’s 13 community colleges have seen a decline, according to enrollment data.
Southwest Tennessee Community College lost 1,900 students over the past two years, the most of any community college, according to state records. Nashville State Community College came in second with a net loss of 1,100 students, according to state records. Chattanooga State Community College had the third largest decline with a loss of 700 students, according to state records.
Tennessee Higher Education Commission External Relations Director Kate Derrick says while more and more high school graduates are choosing to go to college thanks to Tennessee Promise, more and more adults are bypassing college in favor of getting jobs due to the economy.
“When unemployment is this low, you do see a bit of a drop off in enrollment,” Derrick said.
Tennessee Board of Regents Vice Chancellor Tristan Denley says the state is working to try and reverse the trend. Denley says in order to meet the governor’s goal of 55% of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate by 2025 the state needs to continue the increase in high school graduates and bring back adults.
“What we’re really trying to do is to find ways in which we can change that pattern,” Denley said. “What we need is both, so it’s not an either or. What we know is to effectively reach the Drive to 55 we need to engage all Tennesseans.”
Complete Tennessee Executive Director Dr. Kenyatta Lovett believes Tennessee Promise is a success and should ultimately be judged by its long-term impact. However, he says the state needs to do more to make sure the enrollment decline trend doesn’t continue.
“What we see in the community colleges is kind of startling,” Dr. Lovett said. “It’s a concern that I think we need to look at, because the nation is really looking at Tennessee to see if a promise program is really worth its while for higher education.”
Tennessee Promise is worth its while to Carollynn Anders. The Dobyns-Bennett graduate who works two jobs is on pace to graduate from Northeast State Community College in May. She then plans on transferring to East Tennessee State University to major in special education.
“Because of Tennessee Promise I came to Northeast State,” Anders said. “I have no debt right now. It feels great.”
There are more than 1,600 Tennessee Promise students at Northeast State alone, according to the college. Although Northeast State has seen a drop in adult students like other campuses, the college actually gained more than 250 students over the last two years, according to enrollment data. Before Tennessee Promise, Northeast State had declining enrollment for several years.
“We’re doing something right, so it makes us feel proud.” Northeast State Vice President for Student Affairs Matt DeLozier said. “I think we would still be doing some great things here, but there’s no denying (Tennessee Promise has) had an impact on our enrollment, so I can’t help but think without it it wouldn’t be as great as it is or as high as it is, so we might have seen a dip.”
THEC believes the dip is temporary and takes comfort knowing Tennessee Promise had a major impact in its first full year. Not only that, Derrick says enrollment numbers are better today than they were a decade ago.
“Certainly, we’re doing everything we can to promote enrollment and to get those students into college,” she said. “It’s a long-term plan, so we will see fluctuations year-to-year, but we’re confident in our work that we’re doing in the long-term.”
In the short-term, the state needs Tennessee Promise students like Anders to keep doing what they’re doing and turn their rare tuition-free opportunities into degrees.
Just last week, Gov. Haslam announced a record number of high school seniors, almost 61,000 students, applied for Tennessee Promise.
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