Tennessee Community Colleges first year enrollment goes up – Four year public colleges goes down

The “Tennessee Promise” funding model offers free tuition for students to attend nearby Community and Technical Colleges. As a result  first year enrollment for 2 year colleges increased while 4-Year Public Colleges freshman classes declined. Would The New York State Excelsior Scholarship model, a last dollar funding program for 4 and 2-year public colleges reduce the unintended enrollment and budgetary consequences for public 4-year colleges.

By Dr. Roger Brown – Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council

Most college faculty members and administrators, as well as political leaders and employers, support more accessible college educations for qualified students from moderate to low-income families. This article is a comparison of the experience in two states – Tennessee and New York – of free tuition programs for students entering two-year colleges.

The many positive consequences for Tennessee and New York of increased college-going among post-secondary students include: the availability of comparison shopping by students and their families for college educations that do not result in high student loan debt; higher rates of employment in good-paying jobs for which a college education is required; the retention of more college-educated citizens to fill jobs in Tennessee rather than leaving the state for better jobs; and fulfilling needs of employers who are seeking college-educated employees to make their businesses more competitive.

Tennessee’s tuition program for community and technical colleges, known as Tennessee Promise, was the first program in the country (signed into law in 2014) aimed at increasing the college-going rate for students who commit to full-time study at one of the state’s public two-year colleges or technical colleges. According to the most recent state report on Tennessee Promise, the “promise” is being fulfilled.

The program report states, “the statewide college-going rate increased by 4.6 percentage points in the first year of Tennessee Promise implementation, from 57.9 to 62.5 percent. This single-year increase is larger than the past 7 years combined (2007 to 2014). As such, enrollment of first-time freshmen grew between Fall 2014 and Fall 2015. Overall, there was a 10.1 percent increase in postsecondary enrollment across the state, with community colleges experiencing a 24.7 percent increase and TCATs (technical colleges) experiencing a 20 percent increase in first-time student enrollment.” (Tennessee Promise Annual Report 2017, Tennessee Commission on Higher Education, Executive Summary, p. 1.) The program also has been successful in promoting Governor Bill Haslam’s “drive to 55,” which has the goal of increasing the proportion of Tennesseans who complete a college certificate or degree to 55 percent over several years.

However, in Tennessee the funding of “last dollar” financial aid (meaning that the scholarship is awarded to supplement all other forms of financial aid like Pell Grants and individual scholarships) is available only to qualified high school graduates attending two-year colleges not four-year colleges and universities. The result is competition for students between public two-year colleges and public four-year colleges.

In Tennessee, budget officers at four-year public colleges and universities explain that flat or declining enrollments for students in their first two years has a budgetary consequence that is significant. The potential budgetary impacts of declining enrollments at four-year colleges and universities can include among other things fewer faculty members, reduced funding for less popular programs, and postponement of needed maintenance and repairs of campus facilities. (Interviews by author of budget officers at the University of Tennessee, April 28-May 5, 2017.)

The following chart illustrates that the implementation of the Tennessee Promise program was accompanied by a sizable dip in the number of first-time student enrollees in Tennessee’s public four-year colleges and universities.

 Percent Change in First-Time Enrollment at Universities, Fall 2014 to Fall 2015 (Source 2017 Tennessee Promise Annual Report Figure 8 – Page 15)

Tennessee 4 year enrollment decline

An individual campus’s case in point is from one of the universities in the University of Tennessee system that reported that the Tennessee Promise program was accompanied by declining enrollments of first-time students. After two years’ experience with the Tennessee Promise program, our sample campus reported the following enrollment numbers:

 First-time enrollment at one campus of the University of Tennessee system.

Fall 2014:   2160

Fall 2015:   1865 (-13.6% vs. 2014 FTF)

Fall 2016:   2077 (-3.8% vs. 2014 FTF)

As can be seen, first-time enrollment at this four-year campus still has not yet equaled 2014 levels.

New York by comparison is the first state to expand the last dollar tuition program to include four-year public colleges and universities as well as two-year colleges. New York state’s Excelsior Scholarship is a notable exception to the competition between public two-year colleges and four-year colleges and universities for students, as happened in Tennessee’s freshmen enrollments. The Excelsior Scholarship is a last dollar funding program at both four-year and two-year public colleges, Therefore, the competition for students between public four-year colleges and two-year colleges should be alleviated in New York’s system of financial aid to both categories of public colleges. Since 2017 is the first year of the Excelsior Scholarship, increased college-going data are not yet available to compare directly to the Tennessee experience. However, the expected increase in the number of post-secondary New York college graduates will presumably have the same positive consequences as noted above for Tennessee.

Following New York’s example is a first step toward reducing the unintended enrollment and budgetary consequences for public four-year colleges. The implication of New York’s and Tennessee’s experiences suggest that states should consider offering the last dollar financial aid for qualified high school graduates who wish to attend either two-year colleges or four-year institutions.



Dr. Roger G. Brown is Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC).  During his 7-year tenure enrollment increased over 20%, and Dr. Brown was integral in fundraising that generated $81.2 million for scholarships, professorships, and academic programs. He was the key ambassador for government and community relations.His academic career in political science included faculty positions at Iowa State University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His administrative career included the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of North Carolina at Pembroke as Provost, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as Chancellor.

Dr. Brown has authored numerous publications in his field. For six years, he was a member of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  Currently, Dr. Brown is involved in leadership roles at several community nonprofit organizations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.





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