More students are staying in school under Tennessee's free community college program, according to new data from the state.
In the fall, 58 percent of Tennessee Promise students enrolled for a second year of community college, compared to 42 percent of students outside the program.
Tennessee Promise, which guarantees free tuition to community or technical college, applies to students coming right out of high school and taking classes full time — what the state calls "first-time, full-time freshmen." This kind of student has always been more likely to complete college than students who are not enrolled full-time.
In fact, first-time, full-time freshmen who enrolled the year before Tennessee Promise was created had the same higher-than-average retention rate — at 58.2 percent — as the first Tennessee Promise cohort.
The state's higher education commission points out that the program maintained that retention rate with a larger pool of students than in previous years. It has credited the program's mentor component, which pairs students with adult volunteers, for giving students an extra boost.
Alea Peters, a sophomore at Nashville State's campus in Waverly and part of the first class of Tennessee Promise, credits her mentor with making the transition to college easier.
"She'll see me in town, and she'll be like, 'Have you done your community service for Tennessee Promise? ... Are you still in school? What about your grades?' They'll check up on us," she says.
When Tennessee Promise started in 2015, it was the first statewide free tuition program in the country. Retention data is an important early indicator of success. Now that many students in the first Tennessee Promise cohort are in their final semester of community college, the next big benchmark will be how many end up finishing with a degree.