Hundreds of other states, counties and cities offer some form of "promise" scholarship to recent high school graduates, and Tennessee is planning to open free college courses up to adults this fall, as well.

Share story

Earlier this week, we took a look at Tennessee Promise, a program that offers free community college to all students who graduate from Tennessee’s high school, and which shares many similarities to a proposed program for graduates of Seattle city schools.

It’s not just a Tennessee idea. In recent years, hundreds of states, counties and cities have created so-called promise scholarships for free community college, including Oregon, which in 2015 started Oregon Promise. Unlike Tennessee, though, Oregon’s program is funded by the state Legislature, and in 2017-18 some students from wealthier families didn’t receive the grant because the program was not fully funded. (Tennessee funds its program through an endowment created from state lottery funds, so neither voter nor legislative approval is required.)

For a look at all of the programs, go to the College Promise Campaign website. Washington state is also considered a “Promise” state because of College Bound, the program that pays college tuition and fees for the state’s low-income students.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Here are a few other bits and pieces about Tennessee’s program that are worthy of note:

  • With an offer of two free years of community college on the table, Tennessee Promise caused a sudden drop in enrollment in the state’s four-year colleges and universities. “They took a hit,” acknowledged Jayme Simmons, strategy and policy director in the Tennessee governor’s office, but “the shock to the system was very much a shock in the first year.” Still, that’s why many four-year college presidents haven’t been big fans of Promise programs that only cover community college tuition. Tennessee Higher Education Commission Director Mike Krause says the numbers are starting to rebound as students finish community college and transfer to four-year colleges and universities.
  • Tennessee is expanding its program beyond recent high school grads this fall with a program called Tennessee Reconnect. It will provide free community college courses for any adult Tennessee resident who never started, or did not complete, a college degree. Unlike Tennessee Promise, Reconnect students will be able to go to school part-time. So far, more than 12,000 Tennesseans have registered for fall classes. “If Tennessee Promise was able to change the conversation for high school students, Reconnect is close to changing the conversation about going to college for all Tennesseans,” Krause said. The state anticipates Reconnect will cost about $11.5 million annually, money that will also come from lottery funds, just as Tennessee Promise does.
  • For what it’s worth, at least a few of the community college professors we interviewed didn’t think Tennessee Promise made that much of a difference in bringing more students into the college system. A group of Nashville State Community College instructors called Tennessee Promise a fallback for students who didn’t get into the colleges they’d hoped, or whose family had an unexpected financial crisis. Still, state figures show that the college-going rate went up about five percent the first year that Tennessee Promise was offered, and sustained that gain in the next year. Emily House, the chief research officer for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that’s an indication that the state has achieved a “new normal” in the number of students who go to college after high school.