The Tennessee Board of Regents released data last week that attempts to answer the main question behind Tennessee Promise: Does giving away two years of free community college ultimately translate into more degrees?
The answer, the data suggests, is yes. But the gains are a little more modest than officials were probably hoping for.
On the modest side, this data showed that nearly half of the more than 13,000 students who started Tennessee Promise in 2015 — the first year of the program — ultimately didn't complete college. That dropout rate is only 2.3 percentage points lower than the prior year's freshman class, who did not participate in Tennessee Promise. Russ Deaton, vice chancellor for policy and research at the Tennessee Board of Regents, calls the improvement "slow but steady."
"Some of these challenges are long term and are going to take multiple years to dramatically improve some of the numbers," he said. "But if you isolate the actual graduation rate, those students who got degrees compared to the prior year, that graduation rate increased from almost 14 percent to almost 22 percent."
He was referring to the slice of students who finished community college within five semesters, and that boost in graduation rate translates into a thousand more degrees or certificates over the prior year, or about a 60 percent increase.
The data also found that, once Tennessee Promise became an option, students who attended community college but did not participate fared significantly worse, with an 8.3 percent graduation rate.
Deaton says this data is helping education leaders identify the pressure points for Tennessee Promise students — and try to relieve them — which could increase the number staying in school until graduation. For example, students in the program have to go through a FAFSA verification process, in which the federal government asks for additional details on its financial aid application. The data shows that was the biggest hurdle for students.
The fourth class of Tennessee Promise freshmen will start this fall.