In just a few weeks, students who applied for free community college — and almost every high school senior in the state did — will have their first mandatory Tennessee Promise meeting.
This will give a better indicator of how many students are serious about enrolling in community college next fall, but it won’t give a prediction of how many students will end up graduating.
According to one calculation from the Chronicle of Higher Education, only 11 percent of community college students graduate in Tennessee, which doesn’t bode well for the future of Tennessee Promise.
But graduation rates are a fickle thing. Do you include students who are only taking one class a semester? How about students who transfer to a four-year school? Do you count students who get certificates instead of degrees? And how quickly do you want students to graduate — two years? Four years? Six?
It turns out, if you play around with those variables, the predictions fluctuate wildly. For example, Tennessee Promise students have to be enrolled full-time to keep their scholarships. Vanderbilt higher education professor Will Doyle says, if you look at full-time students alone, “that’s going to generally tend to increase graduation rates.”
But Tennessee Promise is likely to attract students who never even considered going to college before, Doyle says, so there’s really no good current data to predict the success of the program.
“I don’t know if the past numbers are going to be an indicator of what we’re likely to see in the future because it’s going to be such a different group of students,” he says.
The state’s goal isn’t a specific graduation rate, says Tennessee Promise director Mike Krause. Instead, it wants 55 percent of adults to have a higher education degree or certificate by 2025.
What’s In A Graduation Rate?
OK, folks, put your math caps on, because I’m about to throw a bunch of numbers your way.
- 11.3 percent — That’s the percentage of Tennessee students who started community college as first-time, full-time freshmen and graduated within three years. From the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s analysis of data from National Center for Education Statistics.
- 13 percent — Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) referenced this number in an editorial in the Tennessean earlier this month. His communications directors says it’s also from NCES, although I couldn’t track this exact number down.
- 28.9 percent — This is the number from the state’s Higher Education Commission. It also looks at first-time, full-time community college freshmen — but includes students who transferred to another college and graduated within six years.
- 68.32 percent — This number, from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, is the most flattering: It looks only at students who a) are seeking a degree, b) stay enrolled in school full-time, c) complete college with a degree or certificate and d) do it within six years, including transfer students. Tennessee Promise director Mike Krause pointed me to this number — students in the program will have to be enrolled full-time to be eligible for the tuition waiver. But Krause also said the state wants Tennessee Promise students to graduate in two years, not six.