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The Citizen Side of the Tennessee Promise

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kenyatta Lovett
April 14, 2015

On Jan. 9, President Obama introduced his plan for free community college for future high school graduates. His proposed program aligns with a similar effort in Tennessee. Starting this fall, community colleges across Tennessee will begin welcoming the first class of Tennessee Promise students.

Credit: Brad Montgomery

It is unclear at this point how many high school graduates will participate in this statewide initiative to cover tuition at the state’s 13 community colleges. Nearly 60,000 applied  in 2014 and the majority of these upcoming high school graduates remain eligible by attending the required meetings and completing their FAFSA on time. The state’s program shows promise of improving college-going rates in Tennessee. Its potential has inspired the consideration of a possible national program. However, free tuition is merely one component of this highly trans-formative program in Tennessee. There is a citizen side that is equally impressive.

The state program involves a public-private partnership, leveraging the strength of community nonprofit organizations. These partnering organizations have the responsibility of ensuring all Tennessee Promise students are assigned a volunteer mentor to help guide them through the admissions and registration process. In short time, the state, in conjunction with these partnering organizations, has recruited thousands of citizen volunteers to take part in the program. These volunteers have converged to ensure success for students, many of whom are first generation college students.

As states begin to explore tuition-free community college programs for their high school graduates, it is important to consider incentives that go beyond lowering the cost of public higher education. Tennessee’s approach highlights the opportunity to include citizens in meaningful change. The benefits go beyond assisting a student through the enrollment process. It can open the door for practices that will drive the future of public policy and public finance in higher education.

Educating Citizens About Higher Education

Education is a topic of interest for most citizens for varying reasons. However, the depth of understanding about administration, policy or practice is quite limited and often misinformed.  As Tennessee and other states establish clear plans to significantly increase degree attainment among citizens, knowledge on the intricacies of higher education will increase, producing additional benefits; also supporting the public goal to have a more skilled and educated workforce.

Policy Engagement

Public higher education has the potential to merge differing public values to encourage citizen participation. For those who cannot agree that affordable higher education is a desirable outcome, most can at least agree that a more skilled and educated workforce is a good thing for the economy. After all, the opposite outcome benefits only a few. Using a public program that can accommodate different, and sometimes competing, public values brings forward a larger audience to tackle future issues around public higher education. The mentorship component can produce new forms of advocacy; especially for under served populations. In addition, the support and involvement of educated and sometimes influential citizens can help improve the state’s concern for equity and inclusion.

Expanding Public Capacity

As state funding steadily decreases for higher education institutions and the demands for better student success increase, the notion of administrative capacity becomes an important concern for faculty and administrators. In a small way, training and educating citizens to assist high school students with the enrollment process increases capacity, informally. Much of the administrative work to enroll students centers on employing hands-on services to help them navigate the process. Potential students who are the first in their family to attend college are often venturing into unknown territory and often drop out of the process before attending the first class. The efforts of volunteer mentors offer a hands-on service to potential students, which is cost-free for the institutions.

As the first wave of Tennessee Promise students begin taking classes this fall, many across the nation will be watching for different reasons. Some will want to know if the program actually makes a difference in the state’s college-admissions and attendance rates. Others will wait a little longer to see if degree attainment rates in Tennessee actually increase. Given the countless volunteers dedicated to helping their fellow citizen realize the benefits of higher education, the success of the program, to this point, has already had significant public outcomes and shown much promise for the state’s future.

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