Tim Omarzu, Chattanooga Times Free Press
Gov. Bill Haslam had a question Tuesday morning for Red Bank High School students assembled in the gym.
Which of the 50 states, Haslam asked, pays for its high school graduates to attend two years of community college or technical school?
“Just one — just Tennessee,” he said. “If you graduate from high school, we will make sure you can go to community college or technical college for two years absolutely free of tuition and fees.”
The governor visited Red Bank as part of a barn-storming tour of high schools around the state to raise awareness of Tennessee Promise, a new scholarship program that guarantees to cover the “last dollar” — tuition and fees not paid by other state and federal programs.
Program enrollment for fall 2015 students began last week, Haslam said, and 1,000 high school seniors applied in five days. The deadline is Nov. 1.
The goal of Tennessee Promise is to get more Tennesseans into college, Haslam told students, because 55 percent of jobs in 2025 will require four-year or two-year degrees.
“Right now, only about 32 percent of Tennesseans have one of those degrees,” he said.
Dozens of hands went up when Haslam asked the students if they would be first members of their families to attend college.
A recent high school grad, Bryan Hidalgo, took a turn at the podium to praise Tennessee Achieves, a Knoxville-based nonprofit organization whose free community college scholarship program helped inspire Tennessee Promise.
Speaking in heavily accented English, Hidalgo said he’s the first person in his family to attend college.
Since he can’t pay back Tennessee, he said, he shows his gratitude by getting the best grades he can at Cleveland State Community College — a 3.8 grade-point average, which drew loud applause from students.
“My father is very proud of me,” Hidalgo said. “I think Tennessee is becoming a leading state in education around the country.”
State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, was among the officials in the audience for Haslam’s speech. McCormick, the House majority leader, said he helped push the Tennessee Promise legislation through that legislative body.
“It was the most important bill I believe I ever moved,” McCormick said.
He said the program will help Tennesseans have more prosperous lives for years to come.
“There was a determined minority against it,” McCormick said. They were philosophically opposed to what they felt was a “government giveaway,” he said.
“People are expected to work for it,” McCormick said.
Tennessee Promise requires that participants complete eight hours of community service per term enrolled and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average.
The program will be funded through lottery money and a restructuring of the state’s Hope scholarships.
“It’s a promise, because the money has been set aside,” Haslam told students.
It’s expected that Tennessee Promise will increase college enrollment by 15 percent statewide, Haslam said after the assembly.
But there’s no upper limit on the number of students who can enroll, he said.
“If it blows that away, I’ll be the happiest guy in the state,” the governor said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.