About 31,000 adults have shown interest in the state’s expansion of the Tennessee Promise model, shattering the expectation of how many would apply and defying a national trend that says adults are less likely to go to college during a strong economy.
In its first year, Tennessee Reconnect is Gov. Bill Haslam’s program that provides grants for students 25 and older to earn an associate degree or technical certificate free of tuition or fees.
“We had hoped for 8,000 to 10,000 applications,” said Mike Krause, Tennessee Higher Education Commission executive director. ” Reconnect has surpassed our expectations.”
Although the numbers aren’t final until the 14th day of classes, Jessica Gibson, THEC’s adult learner initiatives assistant executive director, said the high number of applicants shows just how much interest there is in a program like Reconnect.
She said no other state has a model like Tennessee’s adult scholarship program, which has made it hard for the state to estimate how many people would initially apply.
“No one else in the country has done this,” Gibson said. “We were hoping for big numbers. At maturity, maybe a couple years down the road, we expected 10,000 to 20,000 applications. We didn’t expect this.”
By far, the majority of the interest in Tennessee Reconnect is driven by women, with 22,062 applying for the program — or about 71 percent of all applicants, according to THEC data.
That’s compared to 8,962 applications from men.
Most of the applicants also have never gone to college or are going back to finish school, Gibson said. She added that another third are currently enrolled and applied for the grant to pay their tuition.
The high number of women applying for Reconnect, Gibson said, is likely from mothers who are choosing to head back to school to complete a degree.
“In focus groups, we have heard that the intrinsic motivators are women looking to support their family or be a role model to their kids,” Gibson said.
The numbers, Krause said, also defy national trends that show adults aren’t as interested in college when the economy is strong.
“Nationally, the community college population is contracting because the economy is strong,” Krause said. “Tennessee’s economy strong, but there is still interest in going back.”
Tennessee Reconnect is an addition to the state’s Tennessee Promise efforts, which provides a last-dollar scholarship for high school students interested in applying to a state community college or technical program.
The Reconnect program was announced in 2017 by Haslam, three-years after he unveiled Promise.
The Promise program has shown strong results in getting thousands of students to go to college after high school.
Graduation rates, however, have remained low despite some increases.
The state saw a seven-point spike — up to 21 percent of all community college students — in the number of students getting a degree after five semesters in the program.
Both Promise and Reconnect fit into the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative, launched in 2013 with the goal of getting 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans to complete a college education by 2025.
To be eligible for Tennessee Reconnect, an applicant must not already hold an associate or bachelor’s degree, must be a Tennessee resident for at least one year, and be determined as an independent student on the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.