Results from Tennessee's First Year of the Free Community College for Adults Program

The following article from the Tennessean provides a state level perspective on how the state's Tennessee Connect program is supporting adult learners in pursuing post-secondary education and training.  The article is reproduced in italics below, with bolded text added by myself.  I hope this encourages you to think about the impact that women are having on the demand for post-secondary education, and how the program is responding to increasing economic growth.

I encourage our Tennessee colleagues to share their own perspective on how Tennessee Connect is impacting their learners, and their programs.


About 31,000 adults have shown interest in the state's expansion of the Tennessee Promise model, shattering the expectation of how many would apply and defying a national trend that says adults are less likely to go to college during a strong economy.

In its first year, Tennessee Reconnect is Gov. Bill Haslam's program that provides grants for students 25 and older to earn an associate degree or technical certificate free of tuition or fees.

"We had hoped for 8,000 to 10,000 applications," said Mike Krause, Tennessee Higher Education Commission executive director. " Reconnect has surpassed our expectations."

Although the numbers aren't final until the 14th day of classes, Jessica Gibson, THEC's adult learner initiatives assistant executive director, said the high number of applicants shows just how much interest there is in a program like ReconnectShe said no other state has a model like Tennessee's adult scholarship program, which has made it hard for the state to estimate how many people would initially apply. "No one else in the country has done this," Gibson said. "We were hoping for big numbers. At maturity, maybe a couple years down the road, we expected 10,000 to 20,000 applications. We didn’t expect this." 

By far, the majority of the interest in Tennessee Reconnect is driven by women, with 22,062 applying for the program — or about 71 percent of all applicants, according to THEC data. That's compared to 8,962 applications from men.  Most of the applicants also have never gone to college or are going back to finish school, Gibson said. She added that another third are currently enrolled and applied for the grant to pay their tuition.

The high number of women applying for Reconnect, Gibson said, is likely from mothers who are choosing to head back to school to complete a degree. "In focus groups, we have heard that the intrinsic motivators are women looking to support their family or be a role model to their kids," Gibson said.  The numbers, Krause said, also defy national trends that show adults aren't as interested in college when the economy is strong.  "Nationally, the community college population is contracting because the economy is strong," Krause said. "Tennessee's economy is strong, but there is still interest in going back."

Tennessee Reconnect is an addition to the state's Tennessee Promise efforts, which provides a last-dollar scholarship for high school students interested in applying to a state community college or technical program.  The Reconnect program was announced in 2017 by Haslam, three-years after  he unveiled Promise. The Promise program has shown strong results in getting thousands of students to go to college after high school. Graduation rates, however, have remained low despite some increases.

The state saw a seven-point spike —  up to 21 percent of all community college students — in the number of students getting a degree after five semesters in the program.  Both Promise and Reconnect fit into the governor's Drive to 55 initiative, launched in 2013 with the goal of getting 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans to complete a college education by 2025.

To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, an applicant must not already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree, must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year, and be determined as an independent student on the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.


Thanks for starting this discussion thread Mike. Here's more evidence  from Tennessee of what happens when community college tuition is free.

"Walters State Community College has seen more than a 24 percent increase in adult learners register for classes in the first weeks of school as a new program to provide free college tuition for those 25 and over to community and technical colleges. “When you say, ‘Tuition free,’ guess what’s going to happen?” said Melissa Duff, dean of student services at Walters State. “People are going to take advantage of it.” The Tennessee Reconnect program is in its first year and started this fall after the Tennessee General Assembly approved it last year. The program is part of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to have at least 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025."

I recently had a discussion with a state level staff person from a midwestern state who mentioned that community college registration has been dropping in his state, he thought, because of the full-employment economy. I agreed and suggested that in some cases it is also because legal immigrants who have undocumented members of their family are concerned about registering for any publicly-funded education program, including publicly funded adult ESL/ ESOL  programs or a public community college.

I am interested to hear what is happening in other states with community college enrollment this fall, and your analysis of why.

David J. Rosen