Tennessee Promise's inaugural class of college students begins first day

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks to students as he visits the Cleveland State Community College campus on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, in Cleveland, Tenn. Monday was the first day of classes for students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise, a free tuition program.

It is clear that Tennessee Promise is making a big difference here at Cleveland State and in our communities.

Area community colleges saw a swell of students on Monday as the inaugural class of Tennessee Promise students boosted enrollment numbers.

Chattanooga State Community College reported its first-day enrollment for the most recent graduating high school class to be 1,100 on Monday, up from about 700 students last year. And at Cleveland State Community College, the number of freshman attending classes on the first day increased by 16 percent.

"This growth comes after four years of decreasing enrollment, so it is clear that Tennessee Promise is making a big difference here at Cleveland State and in our communities," school President Bill Seymour said Monday.

photo Haley Hodgson, a Cleveland High School graduate and one of the students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise, speaks to students and other attendees at an event featuring Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at the Cleveland State Community College campus on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, in Cleveland, Tenn.

Tennessee Promise was signed into law last year as a part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "Drive to 55" initiative, which aims to boost the rate of college graduates in Tennessee from 32 to 55 percent within the next 10 years. The program pays for two years of post-secondary education at any of the state's 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology or any eligible institution offering an associate's degree program.

Statewide, more than 18,000 students completed the requirements to receive the scholarship, and the governor stressed on Monday that he wants to see each of these students graduate with a degree or move on to complete a degree at a four-year college.

Haslam spoke to Tennessee Promise students at Cleveland State on Monday. He told them that showing up on the first day of class is a good first step, but reminded them that graduation is the goal.

"The idea [of Tennessee Promise] isn't just about access, but success," Haslam told the students. " The object is to have you graduate."

Haslam said community colleges across the state have stepped up to make the transition for students into college easier, adding "highly personal programs" to help students make it to the graduation stage. He said community college presidents across the state know they are being evaluated on how many students graduate, and the funding they receive is tied to the percentage of Tennessee Promise students that complete a degree.

Seymour said it is important to have students apply for Tennessee Promise and arrive on campus, "but it's even more important that we do everything possible to make sure they are successful and that they complete their programs here at this college."

One of the ways Cleveland State is working to do that is by requiring all first-time college students to take a specific course called First-Year Seminar. The course offers students a variety of information, including things they may not have learned in high school like study strategies and time management, according to program coordinator Ryan Thompson.

The college has been offering the class for several years, and just now decided to make it mandatory for students because of the data that proved its effectiveness, Thompson said. Students who previously took the class made, on average, better grades than students who didn't, and were 15 to 20 percent more likely to complete a degree, he said.

photo Students taking advantage of Tennessee Promise, a free tuition program, walk across campus on their first day of classes to attend an event featuring Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, in Cleveland, Tenn.

With a similar goal, Chattanooga State launched academic completion coaches this year, providing every first-time freshman with a faculty advisor and a completion coach, according to President Flora Tydings.

Students also are being encouraged to enroll in 15 hours per semester and to take a college success course within their respective majors, according to Tydings.

"Our team has worked hard to implement best practices to ensure our students are successful," Tydings said in a written statement.

Executive Director of Tennessee Promise Mike Krause said on Monday, "Today represents the culmination of a lot of work, and is, hopefully, the beginning of a real change in Tennessee's college-going culture."

Lauren Passmore, a freshman at Cleveland State, said that during her senior year at Polk County High School she filled out applications for a variety of colleges. She knew she wanted to study civil engineering, but was not sure where to go. She also was overwhelmed with the price tag for at least four years of college.

"Tennessee Promise sealed the deal on me starting at Cleveland State, because it allows me to get two years of college for free," Passmore said. "Now I am able to start saving for wherever I go to school next to finish my degree."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.