In 2014, the General Assembly passed the Tennessee Promise Scholarship Act, which gives recent high school graduates the opportunity to earn an associate degree or technical diploma free of tuition and mandatory fees. That legislation also required the Office of Research and Education Accountability to review, study, and determine the effectiveness of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program on a recurring basis.

Our evaluation, released in July of this year, examines the first three cohorts of Promise students and includes these key findings:

  • More Tennessee high school graduates are attending college as a result of the program, and Promise students are performing better than their non-Promise peers once enrolled.
  • The first cohort of Promise recipients at community colleges were about two times more likely to earn a credential within five semesters when compared to other recent high school graduates.
  • Promise applicants with low ACT scores, Black and Hispanic applicants, and those from low-income households were less likely to become Promise students.
  • While all Promise students, regardless of income, receive nonmonetary benefits (e.g., mentoring, help filing the FAFSA), low-income students were less likely to receive Promise funds because they often qualified for other need-based scholarships, like the Pell grant. As a result, about 60 percent of Promise funds went to students from households with annual incomes over $80,000.

Challenges & Policy Options

The report offers these policy options to increase the number of students who apply for the scholarship and ultimately earn a postsecondary credential.

  • Some Tennessee high schools require seniors to fill out a Promise application. All high schools — especially those in areas with below average college-going rates — could implement this practice to increase the number of students who apply.
  • The two requirements most missed by applicants were attending the mandatory meeting and completing community service. Because these events typically take place after school, sometimes at a location other than the school, they often require transportation. Completing these requirements can be especially challenging for students from low-income families and those lacking reliable transportation, living in rural areas, or working an after-school job. Holding mandatory meetings and community service opportunities at school during the school day could increase completion of those requirements.
  • Once in college, Promise students must maintain a 2.0 cumulative GPA, remain enrolled full time, and complete eight hours of community service per semester. This is challenging for some students because of work, childcare needs, access to reliable transportation, and the cost of books and fees not covered by the scholarship. Waiving the community service requirement after college enrollment and allowing students to use scholarship dollars to attend classes part-time during the summer term could boost enrollment and completion rates. Recipients of other public scholarships can enroll part-time in the summer using scholarship dollars and no other public scholarships in Tennessee require community service.
  • Tennessee Promise does not cover books, supplies, tools, or non-mandatory fees — which average $1,150 annually for community college students — even when required for a course or program of study. One option: Allow the scholarship to cover a portion of books or fees for low-income students or those enrolled in high-demand programs.
  • Fees for online courses could be covered for students who live 30 minutes or more from the nearest Promise-eligible institution.

The cost of changes must be weighed with potential benefits, such as enhanced workforce development. Some recommendations are cost-neutral (e.g., allowing students to enroll part-time in the summer using scholarship dollars), while others may increase expenditures. The cost of some policy options would be lower if limited to specific student groups (e.g., those from low-income households or living in rural counties).

Our conclusion: Tennessee Promise is increasing the number of students who attend and complete college, but meeting the Drive to 55 goal will likely not be possible without increasing participation among students from certain subgroups and areas of the state with historically low college attendance rates.

Lauren Spires and Kristina Podesta work for the Office of Research and Education Accountability, a division of the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office.