Gov. Bill Haslam established himself as a nationwide higher education leader with the creation of two groundbreaking programs providing free community college to nearly all Tennesseans.

But now, as the Republican governor nears the end of his time in office, he says he'll turn his focus to keeping those students in college long enough to graduate.

"We’re going to finish those things we’ve started," Haslam said in a recent interview with the USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee.

“We’ve made big strides in access, obviously," he said. "But success, or completion, we still have a ways to go."

Tennessee Promise gives new high school graduates the chance to attend community or technical college tuition-free and has sent more than 33,000 students to college since 2015. Community college leaders say they struggle to give students the support they need to ensure they make it past their first semester.

That struggle will intensify in 2018, when the new Tennessee Reconnect program begins to offer tuition-free community college to most adults, or roughly 2 million Tennesseans.

Graduation rates are low at community colleges nationwide, and the trend certainly holds true in Tennessee. For example:

  • At Nashville State Community College, only 23 percent of the students who enrolled in 2010 had graduated six years later.
  • In Knoxville, Pellissippi State Community College saw 31 percent of the students who enrolled graduate.
  • At Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, just 15 percent of students graduated in that same time period.
  • Motlow State Community College, which has a campus in Smyrna, saw 31 percent of students graduate.
  • Jackson State Community College had 23 percent of students graduate within six years.

Officials say those numbers underscore a series of challenges unique to community colleges, where students are more likely to be low-income, need remedial classes or be the first in their families to go to college. Those factors come with their own hurdles that make completion less likely.

"That's a reality of the work that we do," said Flora Tydings, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees the state's network of community and technical colleges. "There's just no doubt about it: Our students have challenges, and so we have to help them overcome that."

For many, costs remain prohibitive even when college is tuition-free

Low-income students are more likely to find the spending associated with college — even when tuition is eliminated — an insurmountable barrier. Paying for books, transportation and other living expenses while forgoing wages by going to school can be prohibitive for poor Tennesseans. But yet, they stand the most to gain from college in the long term.

While programs like Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect encourage people to attend college, they place added pressure on the colleges themselves, which in turn must support large groups with their own distinct needs.

Over the next 18 months, Haslam said, he will meet with state and national education leaders to analyze problems that keep graduation rates low. The early work will focus on examining Tennessee Promise data to determine which students are dropping out and why.

As trends emerge, Haslam said, he will recommend policy or program changes to level the playing field.

That might include "a different approach on campus levels," Haslam said. "It might be us providing a different type of support."

Could finding a new way to fund college be the answer?

Talking to reporters on Tuesday, Haslam said one early idea could be tweaking the way the state funds colleges.

Right now, colleges get some of their state dollars based on the number of students they graduate.

Haslam said one option might be tinkering with that formula to give community colleges added funding when low-income students graduate.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said the review of Tennessee Promise data could reveal little-known tactics that have successfully kept students in the program.

Moving forward, he said, it will be imperative to replicate those tactics statewide.

"There's no doubt that's something that higher education hasn't always been comfortable with," Krause said. "But I think we owe to these students making sure that when we've identified a winning strategy, it's deployed with fidelity.

"I don't think we can be satisfied with pockets of success now."

Reach Adam Tamburin at atamburin@tennessean.com or 615-726-5986