Does Tennessee’s Free Community College Program Shortchange Low-Income Students?

Sep 13, 2018
Originally published on September 12, 2018 6:56 pm

Tennessee Promise, the state’s free community college program for eligible high school seniors, could be shortchanging low-income students. Researchers say these students are often saddled with non-tuition expenses, which the program doesn’t pay for.

But a top education official in Tennessee argues their findings fail to take into account efforts to help needy students connect with sources of financial aid, as well as evidence that thousands of low-income students have enrolled in college as a result of the program.

The dispute centers on a new study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, or IHEP, a research group based in Washington, D.C. Mamie Voight, the study;s author and vice president of research policy at the institute, says Tennessee Promise was designed with the best intention of expanding college accessibility. However, it doesn’t make attendance any more affordable for the state’s neediest students, she says.  

That’s because the program is a “last-dollar” scholarship, which means it pays only for remaining costs of tuition not covered by the other federal or state scholarships.

“The state promise of free college comes into play after a student has received other financial aid. And in Tennessee, the Pell Grant is enough to cover the cost of community college already,” said Voight.

“The program doesn’t actually award them any additional funding, while those students have substantial unmet need to cover other living costs associated with going to college, like housing and textbooks.”

IHEP researchers found students maintain the same amount of unmet need for tuition and non-tuition expenses as they did before the Promise program began in 2015. For low-income students that can add up to around $7,000 for one year of college attendance, they estimate.

Meanwhile, their wealthier counterparts  — who can already afford to pay tuition and often don’t qualify for federal funding — end up with nearly $1,500 in benefit via the program.

“They already have enough family resources and grants and scholarships to cover the full cost of college, both tuition and non-tuition expenses,” said Voight. “The Promise doesn’t actually make a dent in the expenses low-income students have to finance to go to college and succeed in college.”

But, the report fails to paint a complete picture, contends Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“So we have empirical data that tells a very different story than the one that the researchers told,” said Krause. “Eight thousand low income students have entered the pipeline since Tennessee Promise was launched that we believe would not have otherwise enrolled.”

Krause explains the percentage of students filing financial aid paperwork, or the FAFSA, has increased by 13 percent. Criticism of the last-dollar approach is misguided “because it makes this assumption that students know what the Pell Grant is in the first place, and often they don’t.”

The biggest impact of the program, he notes, is a “honed messaged that clearly lays out for students they can go to college.”

And that’s what Gov. Bill Haslam says as well. He told reporters after an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame this week that the program fulfills its goal of increasing enrollment for all students across the board.

“If you look at who our student is, what the demographics are, and the increase in low-income families, we are meeting the objectives we set,” said Haslam.

Still, IHEP researchers argue the takeaway from the study is that without additional support for living costs, low-income students may struggle to complete their degrees after they enroll.

In fact, a 2017 study from education advocacy group Complete Tennessee shows that although retention rates for full-time freshman at the state’s community colleges increased 3 percentage points between 2011 and 2015 overall, retention rates for African-American students at community colleges remain 10 percentage points below their peers.

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