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Students using Tennessee's free community college scholarship are significantly more likely to succeed in college than their peers outside the program, according to data released Thursday.
Fifty-six percent of Tennessee Promise students who entered college in 2015, the program's first year, had graduated, transferred to a four-year university or remained in school two years later. Only 39 percent of recent high school graduates outside of Tennessee Promise had done the same — a difference of 17 percentage points.
The data, part of a wide-ranging analysis done by the state's community college system, the Tennessee Board of Regents, provide the clearest picture yet of the landmark program.
Proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam in 2014, the program was the first in the nation to offer almost every graduating high school senior in a state the chance to go to college tuition-free.
In an exclusive interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee on Thursday, Haslam said the new analysis "shows that the time and the effort and the dollars we're putting into this are not being displaced.
"When we launched Tennessee Promise, one of the legitimate questions was, ... 'Can these students succeed?'" the governor said. "I think the results show that these students are succeeding at a decidedly better rate."
Still, the data show that Tennessee Promise has not fully eliminated one of the most persistent challenges facing community colleges across the nation.
Some 44 percent of the first Tennessee Promise class, more than 5,800 students, had dropped out of college without a degree by 2017.
But Tennessee officials say that number is a sign of progress.
Sixty-one percent of non-Promise students who went from high school to community college in 2015 dropped out in the same timeframe. That's 17 percentage points higher than their peers in the program.
And 48 percent of young students who entered community college in 2014, the year before Tennessee Promise, had dropped out two years later. That's four percentage points higher than the drop-out rate for Promise students.
Emily House, chief research officer at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said the Tennessee Promise numbers showed a "significant and substantial" improvement over the alternatives.
"Those are really hard numbers to move," she said.
House said the difference likely stems as much from the requirements of the Tennessee Promise program as from the scholarship component.
Students must enroll in college full-time, rather than taking one or two classes, and are required to participate in mentoring and community service.
But Haslam said continuing to shrink the drop-out rate would be a top priority of his administration as he enters his final year in office.
“While these numbers are encouraging it’s certainly not something to jump up and down about,” Haslam said. "A lot of our efforts in the remaining year-and-a-half that we have in office will be around how do we dramatically increase the percentage of students who complete."
Haslam said he was looking at ways to include money for advising and other student support systems in the next state budget, which will be his last as governor. Haslam faces term limits and cannot seek re-election in 2018.
Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and student success at the Board of Regents, said the analysis exposed some "troubling" markers that the college system would continue to analyze.
"The data's pretty clear that we have gaps and equity issues," Deaton said.
For instance, minority students were less likely than white students to participate in Tennessee Promise.
Seventy-one percent of eligible white community college students who enrolled in 2015 were in the program. But only 46 percent of eligible black students and 56 percent of Hispanic students took part.
Mike Krause, executive director of the higher education commission, said that data point reinforces the importance of new work going on in the state to understand and tackle achievement gaps in higher education.
The Lumina Foundation, a higher education advocacy group, recently announced it was awarding Tennessee a grant to address racial disparities in public colleges.
State officials generally described the analysis as a positive pit stop for the program on the way to much more work.
The first crop of Tennessee Promise students can use the scholarship for one more semester, and community colleges are taking steps to target students who are still enrolled and push them to finish.
And the higher education commission is continuing to drill into the data to determine what trends might be pushing some students to drop out or succeed. Krause said his team would be looking at specific majors course loads and summer enrollment, among other factors.
“You look at the data, I thought, 'Good news but work ahead,'" said Mike Krause, executive director of the higher education commission.
"We have increased success over the typical community college population," Krause said. "There’s another chapter of the story that we can now tell, that Tennessee tried something different and it’s working."