Joey Garrison, The Tennessean
If there’s a single moment that has best captured the rush to attend community college for free in Tennessee, it probably came at Motlow State last month.
The Lynchburg, Tenn., school held what it called “Scholarship Saturday.” In just four hours, more than 1,300 students signed up for Tennessee Promise, the new program led by Gov. Bill Haslam that gives Tennessee’s high school seniors free tuition at the state’s two-year community colleges and colleges of applied technology.
Forty-five minutes before the doors even opened for the one-stop application outing, a line was already meandering out the door of the school’s library.
“It looked like kids waiting to get into a Justin Bieber concert,” said Mike Krause, who is working out of the governor’s office to lead the initiative to increase the number of college graduates to 55 percent of the adult population by 2025. “But it was kids waiting to sign up for Tennessee Promise.”
With the Nov. 1 deadline to apply approaching, it’s now crunch time for a program that has already attracted 35,016 applications from high school students across the state. That has put Tennessee Promise on pace to perhaps double the state’s goal of 20,000 applications.
That means two-thirds of the 60,000 public high school seniors in Tennessee could eventually sign up for a program that has garnered national attention.
Word about Tennessee’s experiment — it’s the first state in nearly three decades to offer free commitment college tuition — has other states watching and learning. In just the past week, Haslam’s office has talked with leaders, primarily from chambers of commerce from Indiana, Nevada, California and Florida about the program.
The real test, of course, is how many more diplomas it eventually produces, a question that won’t get answered for a few more years.
Tennessee Promise, pushed by Haslam and approved by the General Assembly this past spring, taps the state’s lottery reserves to cover the costs of providing free tuition.
For Krause, the push is twofold. He has crisscrossed the state, putting 2,809 miles on his car over the past three weeks to get the word out, county by county.
One is attracting more Tennessee Promise applicants in counties where they are low. In Middle Tennessee that includes Rutherford, Robertson, Cheatham and Williamson. The other focus is increasing the number of voluntary “mentors,” a critical piece of the program.
Mentors are key
Mentors receive training and serve an hour a month to help Tennessee Promise enrollees — many who are first-generation college students — with items such as signing up for classes and following through on required financial aid paperwork.
Right now, 4,800 have signed up to be mentors, still short of the goal of 6,000. The mentor program also has a Nov. 1 deadline.
Executives from some of Tennessee’s biggest employers, including Nissan North America, FedEx Corp., Eastman Chemical Co. and AT&T Tennessee, formed a Drive to 55 alliance earlier this week specifically to help recruit mentors.
“We really try to make it consume as little time as possible, but it makes a huge difference in success rates,” Krause said.
Receiving free college
To receive the Tennessee Promise, high school graduates are asked to perform a series of requirements:
• Complete a Federal Application for Federal Student Aid.
• Attend mandatory training sessions this winter and spring.
• Perform eight hours of community service. There are no income or academic requirements.
Applicants, as well as mentors, can sign up at tnpromise.gov.
To attract attention to Tennessee Promise, state officials have led mass trainings of 1,100 guidance counselors statewide, distributed information cards for every high school senior and met with all K-12 superintendents. There also have been application sessions like the one at Motlow State.
“Some high schools are doing a full push on every student enrolled,” said MaryLou Apple, president of Motlow State. “Every student, regardless of whether they think they’re going to use it, they are getting their names in the (system).
“They’re telling them, ‘You have have nothing to lose and everything to gain.’ ”
That makes figuring out how many students will actually use the scholarship trickier to predict. Some will opt for four-year colleges or join the military. Others won’t attend school at all. For now, state officials are still keeping their original expectation of between 6,000 and 12,000 first-year Tennessee Promise participants.
The real challenge on that end, Apple said, will be getting students to follow through on the rest of the Tennessee Promise requirements that go after applying, particularly an arduous student aid application.
Metro Nashville school officials say 2,023 of its students have applied for Tennessee Promise. They expect that figure to increase after students return from fall break next week.
Historically, MNPS has around 45 percent of students not continue their education after high school, with affordability being the main impediment. These are the type of students Tennessee Promise is meant to target as opposed to those who might attend four-year schools anyway.
Metro school officials are encouraged about results, but in a district with a large immigrant population, the initiative is unable to serve all its students. Undocumented students are not eligible to receive tuition for free, an omission that has garnered criticism from the outset. That could limit the number of applications from high-immigrant schools such as Glencliff and Antioch high schools.
“If we could ask for anything about Tennessee Promise, it would be that our undocumented students would be eligible,” said Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling for Metro Schools.
Still, it has been a net-plus overall, she said, adding that students are excited about the opportunity. “They want to do it. It’s not like it’s pulling teeth to get students to fill it out.
“This is the incentive that’s making students think college could be an option for them.”
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236 and on Twitter @joeygarrison.
Tennessee Promise free community college program
Deadline to apply — Nov. 1
Number of applicants so far — 35,016
Original application goal — 20,000
How to apply — go to www.tnpromise.gov
Future requirements to receive scholarship:
Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
Attend mandatory training meetings this winter and spring
Perform eight hours of community service.