“Yes, we believe that all students have the potential to earn a college credential, but it was about bringing a world-class work force to Knoxville and Knox County so that we could attract business and industry to the area,” said Krissy DeAlejandro, an executive director and one of the founders of the program.
More than a decade later, the results are encouraging.
Participants who graduated from high school in 2009, 2010 and 2011 were earning, on average, 13 percent more seven years after graduation than their classmates who did not participate in the program, according to research by the University of Tennessee. “The fact that they found any increases in terms of earnings is meaningful,” said Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher at the Upjohn Institute and an expert on the tuition-free college movement.
In the three years after it started, the program raised college enrollment among Knox County high school graduates by about 3 percentage points, on average, from the average of the previous two years.
In 2014, Tennessee started a statewide program offering tuition-free community college or technical school. (The program is funded by the state, and private donors fund a nonprofit organization offering student-success initiatives, including mentorship.) In the years since, a significantly higher percentage of high school graduates have enrolled in college within a year, and more have earned degrees or work force certificates, according to the Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis focused on the accessibility of higher education.
What Tennessee Got Right
Celeste Carruthers, a professor at the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business who has extensively researched the state’s tuition-free programs, said Tennessee had done several things right. The first was keeping the program simple.
“The crystal-clear message that college is free if you follow these steps and go to these places cuts through a lot of the clutter and opaqueness,” Dr. Carruthers said. Need-based and merit-based programs in other states, she said, had less success attracting low-income students, some of whom have struggled to navigate the complicated college financial aid process.
Another aspect of Tennessee’s success was its focus on mentorship for students. One point that conversations about low graduation rates often overlook is that community colleges take all students, regardless of grades and test scores, said Juan Salgado, the chancellor of Chicago’s community college system. Many are first-generation college students, and some are struggling with homelessness, hunger or other family problems.
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That may mean students need more help meeting deadlines, completing coursework and finding jobs. Studies of a program that City University of New York developed to provide mentorship and other support services for students showed impressive increases in graduation rates for low-income students when three community colleges in Ohio replicated it, but results were less encouraging in Detroit.
“Evidence shows that with the right support, financial included, our students can do extremely well despite their circumstances,” Mr. Salgado said.