Tennessee Promise — the statewide program that allows high school graduates to go to community college for free — seems to be boosting the number of students returning for a second year, according to preliminary data.
The state hasn't yet released official retention numbers from the first class of Tennessee Promise. But a handful of schools in Middle Tennessee are reporting higher retention rates.
This is good news for community colleges, which have notoriously struggled to retain and graduate students, especially compared to four-year universities.
For example, Motlow State retained 63.2 percent of its Tennessee Promise students, compared to 51.3 percent of all students.
This is not what the school was expecting, says Jonathan Graham, Motlow's Tennessee Promise coordinator. Last fall — thanks to the first year of the program — Motlow State's freshman class swelled by 73 percent. The school was expecting the allure of free college to pull in more students who weren't motivated to attend, Graham says.
"I think we got a lot of students who weren't necessarily thinking about coming to college in the first place, and we were kind of worried that was going to affect our retention rates," he says.
As it turns out, Tennessee Promise did affect retention rates — positively.
There are two main reasons for the retention boost. One, Tennessee Promise requires that students enroll in school full-time rather than part-time, and full-time students are almost always more likely to stay.
And two, the appeal of free college also attracted many students who plan to go on and get their bachelor's.
"We're probably getting some students that would have been university students and that are picking Tennessee Promise for their first two years," says Volunteer State Community College spokesman Eric Melcher.
Vol State reported the same trend: 57.5 percent retention for Tennessee Promise students, compared to 44.9 percent for the rest of the population.
But while the retention rate is higher than normal, a sizable chunk of Tennessee Promise students still dropped out at these schools. Motlow State lost more than a third; even more washed out at Vol State.
This is in part because they have to complete community service and maintain a 2.0 GPA to stay eligible for the program. Both colleges say they're ramping up efforts this year to communicate with students before key deadlines, like the Dec. 1 due date for community service, so that they don't lose the grant money and leave.
"Part of retaining students in the community colleges is making sure they meet their deadlines for their scholarship," Graham says. "If they don't meet those deadlines, then oftentimes the students that we serve don't have the money to go to school."
Meanwhile, the deadline for high school seniors to apply for next year's Tennessee Promise program is Tuesday.