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Pellissippi State Community College and Cumberland University saw increased enrollment and degree completion in the four years since Tennessee Promise, the state’s flagship community college access program, was launched, according to studies by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Postsecondary Education Research Center. The center is part of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

The reports are the first two in a series to examine the impact of the Tennessee Promise program at specific institutions of higher education across the state.

“This research is important because we know that higher education benefits individuals and society in terms of better earnings, health, and life outcomes,” said Lisa Driscoll, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, who conducted the studies. “This analysis shows that Tennessee Promise increases initial access to these institutions and that retention and degree completion by these students are greater than for previous classes. Future studies linking participation in Tennessee Promise to life outcomes and workforce development can help policymakers understand the added value of such programs.”

The last-dollar scholarship and mentoring program was launched in fall 2015, guaranteeing high school graduates five consecutive semesters of free tuition at the state’s 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology, and other eligible institutions.

At Pellissippi State Community College, enrollment of first-time, full-time freshmen increased 25 percent in the first semester of the Tennessee Promise program and 40 percent by the fall of 2018, when the program’s fourth cohort of freshmen entered PSCC. Over the course of the program, the college has also seen an increase in under-represented minority student enrollment. Enrollment of African American students increased from 5 percent in the fall 2015 cohort to 6.4 percent in fall 2018, and Hispanic student enrollment grew from 4.4 percent to 5.9 percent over the same period.

“Tennessee Promise increases access to higher education for many Tennessee high school graduates. Access is vitally important because it allows our young adults whose major barrier to attending higher education is money for tuition and fees to move forward in developing valued skills and credentials,” said Driscoll.

The study also found that students enrolled in Tennessee Promise take more credit hours in their first semester and are more likely to attain a certificate or degree than other students. In the first cohort of first-time, full-time students, 23 percent of those who were enrolled in Tennessee Promise completed their program in five semesters, compared to 7.6 percent of students not enrolled. That same cohort had a three-year associate’s degree completion rate of 30.1 percent, compared to a 23.5 percent completion rate for both certificates and associate’s degrees for students who entered in fall 2014, the year before Tennessee Promise was launched.

At Cumberland University, an independent college in Lebanon that offers eight two-year associate’s degrees, 1,067 students have benefited from Tennessee Promise. The number of first-time, full-time students enrolled in Tennessee Promise grew from 68 in the first year to 414 in the fall of 2018.

Over the course of the four years, the percentage of Tennessee Promise students from underrepresented communities also grew at Cumberland University. Hispanic enrollment grew from 1.5 percent to 5.6 percent, African American enrollment grew from 4.4 percent to 5.1 percent, and Native American and Asian student enrollment grew from less than 1 percent each to 1.7 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

Among the first cohort of Tennessee Promise students at Cumberland University, 44.9 percent completed their associate’s degree in the first five semesters, compared to 23.6 percent across the state. In the second cohort, more than half of the Tennessee Promise students completed their associate’s degree. Cumberland also retained a higher percentage of Tennessee Promise students for each of the five semesters than statewide averages.

The mission of the Postsecondary Education Research Center is to identify, conduct, and coordinate research on initiatives and ideas designed to enhance education at the institutional, state, and national levels to enhance policy and practice. The center evaluates and recommends effective strategies to improve student graduation outcomes and reduce student debt at graduation, develops strategies for more effective use of financial aid, and examines measures such as microgrants to encourage retention of low-income students. UT Chancellor Emeritus Jimmy G. Cheek serves as the center’s director.

The full report is available on the center’s website.

Media coverage: News Sentinel: Pellissippi State, Cumberland University Saw Higher Enrollment, Degree Completion With Tennessee Promise (also in the Tennessean); WATE: Study: Tennessee Promise Increasing Enrollment; WBIR: Study: TN Promise Increases Enrollment; WVLT: Study: Tenn. Promise Students More Likely to Receive Degrees Over Other StudentsWUOT: Pellissippi Sees Higher Enrollment and Completion Under Tennessee Promise


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