Free for all: An adult college promise program in Tennessee

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Author: Jason Lee, Postdoctoral Fellow at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and former Data Scientist for the TBR Office of Policy and Strategy.

Increasing the supply of adults with a college credential is a policy priority for states across the country. Tennessee’s response to this priority is Tennessee Reconnect, a last-dollar scholarship for adults that covers tuition and mandatory fees at each of the state’s 13 community colleges. TBR – The College System of Tennessee and the Nudge4 Solutions Lab are partnering to explore the success of TN Reconnect students at community colleges and to develop and test intervention strategies that provide adult students with tailored guidance and support to successfully complete a credential or degree. 

The Problem

Policymakers continue to highlight the widening gap between employers’ demand for college-educated workers and the supply of sufficiently-qualified workers to fill open positions. In fact, the Lumina Foundation estimates that to meet the near-term demands of the economy, the share of the workforce with a degree or credential must increase from 46% in 2017 to 60% by the year 2025, which translates to an additional 16.4 million degrees that must be earned beyond what is currently projected. 

In response to this imperative, 42 states have established ambitious attainment goals, yet few states have accompanied these goals with innovative policies or increased financial investments in adult student populations. One state that has bucked that trend is Tennessee, and its most recent policy innovation is the Tennessee Reconnect grant.

The Tennessee Reconnect  application opened for the first time in February 2018, inviting current and prospective students to apply to begin receiving aid the following fall. Free seems to have been a clear message to adults in Tennessee, as over 34,000 prospective students applied for Tennessee Reconnect with almost 15,000 applicants enrolling at community colleges in fall 2018.

The Project Team 

TBR is partnering with the Nudge4 Solutions Lab to develop analysis plans and evaluate opportunities to improve student success through tailored interventions that help adult students make best use of Tennessee Reconnect resources. Our project team includes Amy Moreland, Russ Deaton, and Jason Lee from TBR, Ben Castleman and Kelli Bird from UVA, and Katherine Flaschen from ideas42.

Deep Dive into the Data

Each Tennessee Reconnect applicant completes a questionnaire in which they self-report a number of interesting background characteristics,including their concerns about returning to school, what time they would like to take courses, and what, if any, work commitments they may have while enrolled. In addition to these application data, we also have enrollment, financial aid, and course-level data for students who enrolled in a community college prior to applying. Notably, the enrollment data include not just TBR enrollment, but they also include data from institutions within and outside of Tennessee who report enrollment to the National Student Clearinghouse. These data are supplemented by  Tennessee’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System (SLDS), which includes K-12 information, postsecondary enrollment and awards for almost all colleges in the state, as well as employment outcomes from the state’s Unemployment Insurance database.

TBR’s data, coupled with the data available to us in the SLDS, provide us with quite a few opportunities to investigate how Reconnect students are engaging with all sectors of higher education and the workforce. Understanding more about these patterns can help identify who has been successful in their attempt to return to college, which will allow us to help other enrolled students and even perhaps know which students we should encourage to return to school on the Reconnect scholarship.

The Innovation

Through examining descriptive patterns across these many and varied data sources, we hope to obtain a more complete picture of the educational and employment experiences of Reconnect students. These newfound insights may help us more accurately predict which course sequences are most beneficial and efficient for students returning to college. Or, perhaps, we may also be able to let undecided Reconnect applicants know which degree path might best serve them, given their course histories. We believe that the combination of rich data and the advent of more advanced prediction techniques will aid in student decision-making in ways that we’ve heretofore been unable to leverage.

The Results

At community colleges, early evidence suggests that the number of adults returning (or reconnecting) to college increased by 50% and the number of first-time enrollees almost doubled. These increases reversed persistent downward trends in college-going among the adult population, despite unemployment rates plummeting to their lowest levels in the state’s recorded history. 

Though the program has only been in place for a year, Tennesseans are already talking about the impact it’s having. One student said, “ “With the TN Reconnect program I can finally attend college at a pace that is going to help me reach my lifelong goals sooner than I anticipated.” Another returning student said, “ “Now all the reasons that once kept me from returning to classes were gone. The only thing standing in my way was myself. I decided to get past my fear of failure and go for it. I was out of excuses.”

Published on LinkedIn, view article here

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