Focus on the Presidency: The True Promise of Tennessee’s Promise

By John C. Morgan    //    Volume 22,  Number 4   //    July/August 2014

Tennessee has been recognized for its commitment to reforming public education. Our latest reform initiative, the Tennessee Promise, may well be one of the most transformative programs anywhere in higher education today.

The Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010 created both a new operating and a new funding environment for our publicly supported universities and colleges by providing the framework through which to focus institutions’ resources and efforts on strategies for student success, not just access. Tennessee became the first state to base its entire state operating appropriation for higher education on outcomes. The resulting transformations have our colleges and universities collaborating and sharing ideas, initiatives, and approaches for retaining and graduating more students.

The Tennessee Board of Regents made the Complete College Tennessee Act its priority for strategic planning and directives, requiring every decision about resource allocation at every level to be viewed through the lens of its impact on outcomes. Through board leadership, the focus became deploying resources in ways that make a real difference and lead to real results.

Then, in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam boldly introduced his “Drive to 55” initiative to raise the education attainment levels in the state to 55 percent of adults with a college certificate, diploma, or degree by 2025.

But Haslam really surprised the citizens of Tennessee and the higher education community around the country when he announced during his State of the State address on February 3 that Tennessee would provide an opportunity for students to attend one of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges or 27 Colleges of Applied Technology tuition-free. That is the Tennessee Promise.

This bold promise provides last-dollar scholarships for graduating high-school seniors to cover any remaining tuition or fees after all other financial aid or scholarships are applied. The Promise is available to all students, regardless of their ability to pay or their academic performance. One key component of the Promise is a statewide network of volunteer mentors, with one assigned to each student to provide guidance through the college application and enrollment process.

Students who want to participate in the Promise have responsibilities, too. They must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), agree to work with a mentor, apply to an applicable college and attend its orientation, perform at least one day of community service every semester, and maintain satisfactory academic progress. So students are expected to commit to doing their part in the Promise.

Communities throughout the state are also committed to helping the Promise succeed. Each will have a nonprofit organization partner through which additional support and mentoring will be arranged. The Promise will be funded primarily through an endowment paid for by lottery reserve funds.

The Tennessee Promise is remarkable in many ways. It provides college funding for any student who commits to participate, it involves the community and business leaders through mentoring, and it doesn’t require additional state money.

But the true promise may come in a less tangible, but even more valuable form. The Tennessee Promise has already started to change the conversation about the realistic possibility of college attainment for every child in Tennessee. It guarantees every student an opportunity to pursue postsecondary education. The conversations around the dinner table no longer have to be about whether a family can afford to send a child to college. It’s there. It’s a promise. The conversations with teachers and guidance counselors will now be about what every student needs to do to prepare for college, not whether it’s possible. The expectation is there. It’s a promise.

That promise will lead to a change in culture in Tennessee, creating one in which there’s an ineradicable expectation that students will pursue postsecondary education because they need to, we need them to and, most importantly, they can. That’s the true promise of Tennessee’s Promise.

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