And it seems to be working. There had been concern that as more students who previously might not have considered college took advantage of the program, college retention might decline. But average retention from the fall to spring semester last school year was above 80 percent, slightly higher than it was before the rollout. And Pellissippi president Anthony Wise said during King’s visit that the college’s Promise students—2,705 of about 10,244 students total—are faring even better academically than many of their non-Promise peers.
“We want to build on what’s happening here,” King said during a roundtable with students, noting that more than 30 similar programs have cropped up across the country in the last couple of years, including a recently announced plan in Los Angeles.
Yet not everyone is convinced the strategy can be scaled successfully, or that expanding it to cover four-year degrees, as Clinton’s plan would, makes sense. Robert Boyd, a professor at Pellissippi who brought students in his African American literature class to hear King speak, said he and some of his fellow professors have struggled with how to teach students who arrive on campus unprepared for college-level work. He worries that expanding access to college for more students could exacerbate that problem. “It’s a great idea,” Boyd said of free college, “but the gap is too wide.”
King himself noted the need to do more to prepare young people for college during the roundtable, saying, “I think there’s more we need to do in K-12 to make sure students are successful.”
And Wise, the school president, acknowledged during a conversation after the roundtable that there are serious challenges in taking a program like the Tennessee Promise nationwide, even at just the community-college level. One of the reasons it’s been so successful is that the students who participate—many of them the first in their families to pursue higher education—meet regularly with mentors who help demystify the college-going process. The mentors check in ahead of deadlines, prod students to talk to professors, and urge students to apply early for internships and other opportunities. In short, they offer support and assurance to each student that someone is personally invested in their success. Lots of research suggests those connections have a very profound impact on graduation rates. But while finding enough mentors to support students hasn’t been an insurmountable obstacle locally, identifying mentors to do so nationwide is a daunting task.
As the bus, bright yellow and emblazoned with the phrase “Honk if you love teachers,” pulled out of Knoxville en route to Chattanooga, the secretary acknowledged the challenges for colleges in ensuring all students are successful, but pointed out that schools can apply for federal grants to pay for resources, such as mentoring, that help more students persist through graduation.