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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam talks about his Tennessee Promise program with Bryan Hidalgo at Red Bank High School in 2014.

Next month, the first students enrolled in the state's new Tennessee Promise program, which essentially guarantees free tuition for two years of community college, begin classes.

The program, which is the equivalent of a last-dollar scholarship for students who qualify, was begun by Gov. Bill Haslam with the idea of offering higher education for students who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to attend. The hope is that graduation from a two-year or four-year school will increase the likelihood of those students landing better jobs and leading better lives.

The Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship (TELS) is now more than a decade old. Though qualification for this scholarship program (generally known as Hope) is more stringent than qualification for Tennessee Promise, some figures from the 2015 Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship Annual Report may provide some predictors of how the new program will fare.

Since Tennessee Promise students will be attending community college, it's good news that lottery scholarship freshmen who entered community college in the fall of 2014 are coming in more qualified than their counterparts in 2005. Indeed, their mean high school grade-point-average has risen from 3.30 to 3.37, the percentage of students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher has risen from 81 percent to 86 percent and fewer students have had to take remedial/development courses.

In addition, a higher percentage of first-time freshmen in the fall of 2014 — in all categories of higher education — had at least one parent with an associate's or advanced degree than they did in 2005.

Especially illustrative for Tennessee Promise officials are numbers of first-time freshmen who entered classes from the fall of 2004 through the fall of 2013 who lose their scholarships in the first year. The good news is 62 percent all students still return to school.

Disaggregating that number, from 9 to 15 percent more blacks than whites return without their TELS. Men and women without it return in almost the same percentage. Students with family adjusted gross incomes between $12,000 and $72,000 without their scholarship return in almost the same percentage. Students who initially qualified for their scholarship with both grade point average and ACT score — 65 percent of whites and 39 percent of blacks — returned at a higher rate than students who qualified based on only one qualification or the other.

On the downside for Tennessee Promise, though, community college students who lost their scholarship in the first year came back for their second year 12 to 17 percent less than Board of Regents students and 15 to 30 percent less than University of Tennessee system students.

Among those who retain their scholarship in a second year, the rates are 12 percentage points higher for first-time freshmen who do not need remedial or development coursework.

Where graduation is concerned, among all lottery scholarship students who entered in the falls of 2005 through 2009, white students graduated at a rate more than 15 percentage points higher than black scholarship students, women graduated at a rate more than 10 percentage points higher than men, and students who had strong high school grade point averages and average-to-below average ACT scores had higher graduation rates than students with strong ACT scores and average-to-below average high school grade-point-averages.

Commentaries in the Times Free Press in 2008 sought to determine why lottery scholarship recipients were not keeping their grants. On one hand, Dr. Charles D. Van Eaton, then distinguished professor at large at Bryan University in Dayton, Tenn., suggested students weren't as prepared for college as in previous years and urged that the scholarship program keep "more demanding requirements." On the other hand, then-University of Tennessee at Chattanooga political science professor Dr. John Friedl suggested the program reset its retention standards to allow students who are in academically good standing and making normal progress toward graduation to keep their grants.

Since then, according to the 2015 Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship Annual Report, as if in a nod to Van Eaton, "the percentage of new freshmen receiving a TELS award has increased at public universities and community colleges, indicating better academic preparation and performance by high school seniors since implementation of the TELS program." And, as if in a nod to Friedl, the program reduced its retention qualifications for students at the 48-hour mark and increased its award amounts for juniors and seniors.

The Tennessee Promise is an opportunity and will be a challenge. Statistically, its participants are likely to be poorer, have less of a family history of higher education and be less prepared for college than the students the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship awards. But if they have the same desire the lottery scholarship students had when they lost their grant, they can make it. And college can prove to be a life-changing experience for them.

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