SMYRNA, Tenn. — A high school assembly changed Nicole-Lynn Riel’s life.
In fall 2014, as Riel, a senior, was applying for jobs at Red Lobster, J.C. Penney and Target, a speaker came to her school to talk about a new state program, Tennessee Promise, that would pay the tuition for all students at the state’s community colleges.
When the speaker said school would be free for everyone, Riel said, she “perked up and said, ‘What?’”
This month, Riel, now 20, graduated from Motlow State Community College here, and will soon start working toward her bachelor’s degree at a four-year school.
Her journey is an increasingly familiar one in Tennessee, and one that a growing number of states are trying to replicate with programs that pay tuition, usually at the community college level, for a broad number of students. Oregon started its program last fall, while Arkansas and Kentucky are developing initiatives, and Rhode Island has proposed one. New York, in April, became the first state to offer free tuition at all public two-year and four-year institutions, with an income cap that will climb to $125,000 over three years.
The New York version, called the Excelsior Scholarship, is the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s middle-class agenda to make college more accessible and affordable, which was enacted by the Legislature in April.
In Tennessee, where Riel and other members of Tennessee’s first cohort of scholarship recipients graduate this spring, community college enrollment numbers are up by one-third, while the amount that students are having to borrow from the federal government is down, though it is unclear what effect the money is having on on-time graduation, a key goal of the New York plan. And at least some of the state’s four-year colleges have faced declining enrollment, as more students use community college as a steppingstone to a four-year degree. That experience may offer valuable lessons and caveats to New York and other places.
“We’re very encouraged by the early results,” said Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a Republican. “I don’t know I would say, ‘Andrew, you should have done it this way,’ but I would salute him for trying to find a solution that works for New York.”
Just a decade ago, Tennessee’s higher education outlook was bleak: A 2007 report card on state education initiatives, commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, gave the state an F in several categories, including “academic achievement of minority and low-income students” and “postsecondary and workforce readiness.”
Under Haslam’s immediate predecessor, Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, the state changed its higher-education funding formula to reward colleges for, among other goals, successfully shepherding more students toward graduation. In 2013, Haslam unveiled a multipronged initiative, “Drive to 55,” to increase the number of state residents with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent, from 32 percent, by 2025. That initiative eventually included the Tennessee Promise, which fills the gap between any aid students receive, such as federal Pell grants or merit scholarships, and their tuition and mandatory fees at the state’s community colleges or colleges of applied technology.
Tennessee’s approach — called “last dollar,” and similar to what New York is trying — contrasts with more established “first dollar” Promise programs in various cities. Under those programs, which are often financed by private money, scholarships are offered upfront before other aid is calculated. Those programs have proved very effective, researchers have found, but would also be more expensive on a large scale.
What Tennessee did exceptionally well, by all accounts, was promote the Promise program by emphasizing a simple yet powerful message — free tuition — and gradually winning over hundreds of school officials and community leaders. Nearly every county hosted workshops on how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a prerequisite for anyone seeking Promise funds, and several thousand volunteers, called mentors, agreed to guide students.
For the past two years, Tennessee has led the nation in FAFSA applications. Seventy percent of high school seniors there fill one out, 13 percentage points higher than New York, according to federal Department of Education figures. The number of Tennessee students applying for federal loans, meanwhile, dropped 17 percent in 2015, said Joni E. Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who was a co-author of a report in April analyzing higher education in Tennessee.
Enrollment at community and technology colleges for first-time freshmen has climbed 30 percent. And a majority of Tennessee Promise students who began at a community college in fall 2015 were still in school this year, compared with fewer than half of those who were not Promise recipients, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
“In many ways, it’s a good model in terms of how much work you have to do in terms of implementation to get this to work,” said William Doyle, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “The messaging, the branding, the community outreach.”
At Antioch High School in south Nashville, where roughly three-quarters of the mostly minority population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, signs urging students to sign up for the program are ubiquitous, and college acceptance letters are taped to the wall in the hallways.
Previously, “the mindset of the building was, ‘Our kids don’t go to college — they go to work,’” said Stephanie Ridley, a Spanish teacher. “But if you tell kids they can go to college, they will.”
Many Antioch students said they saw the program as a way to save money by going to community college for two years free before transferring to a four-year university.
Other students appear to feel likewise. Across the state, freshman enrollment at four-year institutions has been flat, or down, since the advent of the Promise program.
“No longer can we be complacent that students will arrive because they always have,” said Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University, where freshman enrollment declined 3 percent in the first year of the Promise program. “It’s really forced universities to think about here’s what differentiates a university degree from other experiences.”
State officials and academics caution that a detailed assessment of the Promise program, which last year cost $25.3 million, largely financed by the state lottery, would not be known for several years, especially in terms of its impact with regard to race, geography and income.
Under the program, students must enroll full time for the fall semester after graduating from high school. Once they qualify, scholarship recipients must complete eight hours of community service per semester and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average or better.
In New York, students who have been residents for at least a year, and whose families meet the income requirements, are eligible for the Excelsior Scholarships to any school in the State University of New York or City University of New York systems. There is no minimum GPA, though students must remain in good standing.
Recipients are also obligated to stay in New York for as many years as they received the awards, or risk having the grant be converted into a loan — a requirement that Tennessee officials and educators worried could be counterproductive.
“I’m not sure that isn’t a solution in search of a problem,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “Fine print is the enemy, and having the fine print say that your grant could become a loan could erode trust.”
In both states, some believe that programs would be more effective if they helped low-income students cover books and other expenses instead of just tuition, which often can be paid by other aid.
State Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, said more money should be set aside for merit-based aid such as the state’s Hope Scholarships.
“The Promise plan is just the opposite of what a scholarship should be: It gives the most money to the least qualified and the least meritorious,” he said.
While Tennessee introduced its program over many months, the Excelsior Scholarship has been on a compressed schedule, with applications, plus the regulations governing the program, to be issued in a few weeks by the state’s Higher Education Services Corporation.
“New York is on track to offer tuition-free college to all middle-class students starting this fall, and with the largest and most inclusive free college program in the country, we are encouraged by Tennessee’s achievement and look forward to seeing the Excelsior program succeed,” said Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for Cuomo.
When asked to assess New York’s program, Tennessee officials and educators applauded the idea of expanding free tuition to four-year schools for state residents.
They also said the state should be receptive to changes. For instance, one new initiative, passed by the Tennessee Legislature last week, would essentially expand the Promise program to include adults who took at least six credit hours a semester.
At Motlow State Community College, which reported the biggest gain in first-time freshman enrollment at any community college between 2014 and 2015, students said one of the best features about the Promise program was its simplicity.
One recent graduate, Italia Joseph, 20, said she had originally been skeptical about college because her father had railed against student debt. “He was always talking about money, money, money, and it seemed like only rich kids went to school,” she said.
But the Promise money and a Pell grant covered the annual bill of more than $4,000 for tuition and mandatory fees. She studied criminal justice, and hopes to work as a crime scene investigator.
Riel — who first learned about the program at her high school assembly — is also looking ahead. She plans to enroll at Middle Tennessee State University in the fall, and wants to become an elementary-school teacher.
Her mother, Jacqueline Willison, speaking before the weekend’s graduation ceremony, said her daughter was the first member of the family to earn a postsecondary degree.
“It was such a great blessing,” she said, choking up. “Finally, a glimmer of hope. I’m very proud of her.” At graduation, she went on, “I’m going to need a box of Kleenex.”