Tennessee’s Free Community College Program Wants Mentors To Help More With Retention

Apr 18, 2016

In the first year of Tennessee Promise — the state's free community and technical college program — about four out of five students stayed on board for a second semester. As the state prepares for its next batch of college freshmen, the program is looking at how to retain more students once it recruits them.

At a meeting with Tennessee Promise applicants in the Sycamore High School cafeteria in Cheatham County, Ann Massa is giving the same shpiel she gave last year. She works for Tennessee Achieves, an organization that meets with thousands of high school seniors to help them through the Tennessee Promise application process. She talks about deadlines for the program, and she goes over what the high school seniors will need to do over the summer to stay eligible.

Then, there's something new: a discussion about goal-setting.

"What is the ultimate goal of going to college, you guys?" she asks. "Why are you going to school?"

Devin Bush, a senior at Sycamore, jots down a few lines on a worksheet. "Making time for a schedule and everything," he explains. "Making sure I get my grades good."

This activity is a small change, but it reflects a shift that the state is making: thinking more about how to help students not only get to college but also stay there.

Just over 78 percent of the first class of Tennessee Promise students at community colleges stayed in the program for a second semester. It's unclear how many of those students dropped out of college entirely and how many just failed to meet a Tennessee Promise-specific requirement, like completing eight hours of community service.

That's about the same retention rate as first-time freshmen the previous year, before the program began — which isn't a bad thing, says Emily House, director of research at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. She points out that Tennessee Promise helped bring in thousands more freshmen than usual.

"It's a very positive thing that the retention rate stayed the same," she says. "In theory, it could have plummeted."

Still, Tennessee Promise officials want to make sure fewer students drop out of the program next year. Goal-setting during planning meetings is one strategy. Another is changing how the state uses community volunteers, or mentors.

Last year, each mentor was assigned to a handful of Tennessee Promise applicants and met with them twice before they went to college.

"We really asked the mentors to work more on the access side," says Graham Thomas with Tennessee Achieves. "I think the mentors did what we asked them to do."

This year, mentors are expected to meet with students once before college and once during their first semester as freshmen. If students get more support during their first semester on campus, Thomas says, the retention rate is likely to increase as well.

Emily Johnson, a mentor in Cheatham County, thinks the change is a good idea. She barely heard from any of her students last year after they went to college.

"It'll help keep interaction while they're starting school," she says. "Maybe that will help keep that motivation going."