How Tennessee Promise is tied to the Pell Grant and what it means for higher education

In the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life,"George Bailey tries to keep the Bailey Savings and Loan afloat by pleading with his customers to understand how they are all connected: “You’re thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money’s not here. Your money’s in Joe’s house, right next to yours, and a hundred others.”

If I can be so bold as to channel Jimmy Stewart for a moment, I’d like our nation’s policy leaders to understand how financial aid is all connected. Cutting the Pell Grant for low-income students will cause strain to the Tennessee Promise scholarship and other similar scholarship programs across the country. 

As the value of the Pell grant goes down, the cost of a last-dollar scholarship (like Tennessee Promise) equally goes up. For example, if a student’s Pell grant goes down by $100, their Tennessee Promise scholarship goes up by $100. This means that more students will be tapping into the Promise fund. Original calculations of how many students would be eligible for scholarship dollars will need to be adjusted as more and more students become eligible.

The Pell Grant is a federal grant that gives low-income students the opportunity to attend college. The Congressional Budget Office predicts the Pell Grants will help over 7.5 million students continue their education after high school this year. The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, points out that Pell now covers less than 30 percent of the cost of attendance for an undergraduate college — its lowest purchasing power in 40 years. 

Without action from the United States Congress, Pell will no longer rise with inflation. This will make the award weaker. The current House budget recommendation is to keep Pell funding flat for the next 10 years. This, in essence, is a cut.

The buying power of Pell will continue to recede over time. In 10 years, TICAS predicts the grant will cover only one-fifth of college costs. This change means fewer students will be able to afford earning a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college, resulting in more students enrolling in community colleges, in turn, resulting in more students leveraging Promise dollars.

More scholarships will need to be offered, and the average cost of those scholarships will need to increase. The result will strain Promise resources and, quite possibly, the Promise reserve fund.

This means that not only will low-income families be affected by cutting Pell, but middle income families that rely on Tennessee Promise and similar scholarships will eventually be affected. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the cost of higher education (and I could write a thousand additional words on the fairness of higher education affordability) the fact of the matter is opportunity for economic security is directly linked to having a college degree or certificate.

Higher education gives everyone an opportunity. When we limit opportunities, we limit our citizens from being able to contribute to the greater good of our community and country.

Congress should continue to show their bipartisan support of students (as they always have) and continue to allow the Pell Grant to adjust based on inflation.  As George Bailey says in his closing argument defending the old Savings and Loan, “Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other.”

This op-ed was authored by Bob Obrohta, Executive Director of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, and was originally published in the Tennessean on August 17, 2017. 

Finding the Right Fit: NCCEP 2017

John-Paul Gray, Melissa Presswood and Jenny McFerron at NCCEP 2017 in San Francisco.

John-Paul Gray, Melissa Presswood and Jenny McFerron at NCCEP 2017 in San Francisco.

I was so excited to participate in my very first National Council for Community and Education Partnerships (NCCEP) conference last week in San Francisco! It was inspiring to meet and hear from GEAR UP professionals across the country on how they are working with students and families, schools, local organizations, and higher education to increase postsecondary opportunities for their states and communities. The conference’s theme, Becoming Future Proof, was a great focal point as the links between postsecondary attainment and workforce readiness are a focus for our state and the nation as a whole. I loved how NCCEP took a broad look at readiness through the conference theme to explore the (sometimes scary!) future and how our students can be prepared for a lifetime of meaningful work in a changing world.

It was wonderful to have to opportunity to facilitate a session alongside my colleagues and GEAR UP TN site leads Melissa Presswood from Bradley County Schools and John-Paul Gray from Metro Nashville Public Schools on how students find the right college fit – a critical step in becoming future proof. Melissa and John-Paul shared insights from their very different sites and session participants shared resources and ideas with one another for how they can help their students understand the concept of fit, apply to a range of postsecondary institutions, and get recruited by colleges that are a good fit.

Some challenges that emerged from our conversation in the session included the helping students understand the concept of college fit in a way that was concrete rather than theoretical, helping students look beyond the “brand name” of institutions they are already familiar with to explore unfamiliar options, and overall how difficult it can be to have these conversations in a group setting with students.

Some strategies and ideas that were shared during the session included:

  • Doing an activity that creates a concrete visual of fit that students can use as an anchor. One participant suggested an activity with lots of different sizes of college t-shirts. The facilitator could hand different shirts to different students to wind up with differences in fit – some students will have shirts that fit them, while others will have shirts that are way too big or small. The activity leader can use this as a jumping off point to talk about how fit is individual and personal – just because a t-shirt fits one student doesn’t mean it fits that student’s best friend.
  • Using data to jump-start conversations about how colleges differ from one another. This idea came up a few times in the conversation, and one example that really stood out was someone who used the micro-scholarship site with her students. This professional had all her students set up accounts on, then used the amounts of micro-scholarships they each received to talk about different types of institutions. For example, if a student received a larger micro-scholarship from a private institution than a public one, the professional used that opportunity to discuss why that might be the case with the student. I loved how this very personalized approach helped make the differences between types of institutions apparent!
  • Helping students look beyond the “brand name” they are familiar with. Several participants shared the challenge of getting their students to look beyond particular institutions that loom large in their states. One idea for helping students look beyond names of institutions was printing out or creating poster-size college profiles that had college names and identifiers removed, so that the only information students could base their college decision on were things like size, graduation rates, and other college fit indicators. Students would have to justify how they made their college choices before the real names of the institutions were revealed to challenge some misconceptions or preconceptions students might have about their “brand name” colleges.

Thank you so much to all the session participants for their ideas and willingness to collaborate during the last conference session of the day! If you would like to take a look at the slide deck for this presentation, it’s available below. Don’t forget to check out The TalentED Project – a free tool you can use with your students to help them find their college fit.

What's Next: A Curriculum for Reducing Summer Melt

Across the country, up to 40% of students who leave high school planning to attend postsecondary do not end up enrolling in the fall (Castleman & Page, 2014). This drop off in the few months between high school graduation in the spring and college enrollment in the fall is oftentimes referred to as "summer melt." Lower-income students are most likely to be affected by the summer melt phenomenon - in some low income communities, nearly 1 out of every 2 students who intended to enroll in postsecondary in the fall fail to start college (Castleman & Page, 2014). 

How can this happen? Experts conclude that this is in large part due to students facing complex, bewildering tasks related to college enrollment - like needing to set up a payment plan with the financial aid office on campus - without the support to navigate these decisions. 

However, there are promising solutions to this problem. The Tennessee College Access and Success Network (TCASN) recently created What's Next, a curriculum designed to reduce the incidence of summer melt and prepare high school graduates to successfully begin college the fall semester after high school. What's Next was originally created for Opportunity Now, a youth employment initiative spearheaded by the office of Nashville’s Mayor, Megan Barry. The program was successfully piloted throughout Nashville in Summer 2017 and is now available to be customized to other local contexts. 

The What's Next Curriculum

Our approach 

  • Identifies one concrete step students can complete each week and supports to help them accomplish it
  • Explicitly teaches skills students need to be successful in postsecondary settings
  • Focuses on connections to peers and professionals on their campus so students have a support system when they arrive.

Interested in learning more about how your school, district, or region can reduce summer melt? Contact Jenny McFerron, TCASN's Director of Strategy and Engagement, to learn how you can customize the What's Next curriculum to fit the needs of your students and community. 

UBS Announces The TalentED Project to Drive College Success

New partnership with the Tennessee College Access & Success Network and Discovery Education addresses the challenges of lower-income, first-generation college students

September 18, 2015

NEW YORK--(BUSINESS WIRE)--UBS announced today a $2 million commitment to launch The TalentED Project, a new initiative aimed at increasing college success through strategic partnerships with the Tennessee College Access & Success Network (TCASN) and Discovery Education, the leading provider of digital content and professional development for K-12 classrooms. The TalentED Project, which will launch its pilot in October 2015, is an innovative technology-based solution, designed to increase the recruitment of high-potential, lower-income, first-generation college students. The portal connects college admissions officers with college access professionals enabling them to match talented students to colleges that are a good fit for them.

“The TalentED Project, created with input from over 150 college admissions and college access professionals, not only helps these students realize their potential, but it also allows colleges to actively recruit these students to their campuses.”

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"The TalentED Project is a new approach to tackling challenges faced by lower-income, first-generation college goers," said Bob McCann, President Americas, UBS. "In partnership with TCASN and Discovery Education, we can help accomplish something that is important to every single person in this country — getting more students into the schools and universities that will put them on the road to lifelong success."

Last year, UBS announced a $10 million, multi-year commitment to building out a platform for college success, UBS NextGen Leaders, with a goal to increase graduation rates among first-generation and lower-income college students. The platform's first initiative, UBS-SEO College Scholars, is an intensive college success program in partnership with SEO Scholars that provides support and resources to a cohort of African American and Hispanic/Latino young men. The TalentED Project is the newest program under UBS NextGen Leaders, with TCASN serving as the project's lead content and implementation partner and Discovery Education leading the technical development of the platform, and playing a key role in raising awareness and distributing these innovative resources to its growing community of educators and students.

The TalentED Project enables admission recruiters to connect with students earlier in the traditional admission process, so that they can more efficiently and effectively recruit them to their campuses. For college access professionals and students, the portal helps in identifying "good fit" colleges and synthesizing information including selectivity, affordability, retention and graduation rates.

“We know from research that college fit - finding a college that meets your academic, financial, social and emotional needs - is critical to college success and completion. High-potential, lower-income, first generation students are not always aware of the many college options available to them,” said Bob Obrohta, TCASN Executive Director. “The TalentED Project, created with input from over 150 college admissions and college access professionals, not only helps these students realize their potential, but it also allows colleges to actively recruit these students to their campuses.”

"Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise makes community college free for every high school graduate in Tennessee, the president just took a first step to making it easier for any student to apply for financial aid by letting families use tax information they already have, and UBS is going to connect high school guidance counselors with college admissions officers to help low-income students get into good colleges,” said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn). “Today’s Tennessee high school students have the best opportunity in history to earn a college degree – and it will be the best investment they’ll ever make."

“Through the Drive to 55 and Tennessee Promise initiatives we are working to change higher education expectations in Tennessee, but this is not just about ‘access’ but also ‘success,’” Governor Bill Haslam said. “We want to do everything we can to empower Tennessee students in their pursuit of a degree and a high quality job, and The TalentED Project creates another avenue to help lower-income, first-generation college students in this effort.”

“Discovery Education is proud to partner with UBS and the Tennessee College Access & Success Network on this important initiative,” said Bill Goodwyn, President and CEO of Discovery Education. “In today’s global economy, the knowledge and skills acquired through a college education are more valuable than ever. We are pleased to support this innovative effort to help first-generation, lower-income students across the country increase their chances for success beyond high school graduation.”

The partnership is designed to address challenges that are faced by students when matriculating to selective institutions and persisting to graduation. For the pilot, The TalentED Project aims to have 50 select colleges and universities nationwide, and college access professionals from New Jersey, New York, Tennessee and Chicago, IL.

About UBS

UBS is committed to providing private, institutional and corporate clients worldwide, as well as retail clients in Switzerland, with superior financial advice and solutions while generating attractive and sustainable returns for shareholders. Its strategy centers on its Wealth Management and Wealth Management Americas businesses and its leading universal bank in Switzerland, complemented by its Global Asset Management business and it's Investment Bank. These businesses share three key characteristics: they benefit from a strong competitive position in their targeted markets, are capital-efficient, and offer a superior structural growth and profitability outlook. UBS's strategy builds on the strengths of all of its businesses and focuses its efforts on areas in which it excels, while seeking to capitalize on the compelling growth prospects in the businesses and regions in which it operates. Capital strength is the foundation of its success.


Driven by the mission to increase the number of Tennesseans completing postsecondary opportunities, TCASN aims to establish a college-going culture in communities across the state by removing barriers to higher education, promoting persistence, connecting education and community leaders, and promoting professional education and information sharing. TCASN’s membership is approximately 150 organizations that represent multiple stakeholder groups committed to college access and success, including K-12 schools, non-profit organizations, higher education institutions, business, and philanthropy.

About Discovery Education

Discovery Education is the global leader in standards-based digital content for K-12, transforming teaching and learning with award-winning digital textbooks, multimedia content, professional development, and the largest professional learning community of its kind. Serving 3 million educators and over 30 million students, Discovery Education’s services are in half of U.S. classrooms, over 40 percent of all primary schools in the UK, and more than 50 countries. Discovery Education partners with districts, states and like-minded organizations to captivate students, empower teachers, and transform classrooms with customized solutions that increase academic achievement. Discovery Education is powered by Discovery Communications (NASDAQ: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK), the number one nonfiction media company in the world. Explore the future of education at
Follow us on Twitter: @UBSAmericas


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