MJ Slaby, Knoxville News Sentinel
“If you’re an adult in Tennessee, you can go to one of our colleges of applied technology absolutely free.”
That’s Gov. Bill Haslam’s one-sentence version of Tennessee Reconnect, a scholarship for adults to attend any Tennessee College of Applied Technology tuition-free.
“When you say free, it attracts a lot of people who thought they couldn’t afford it,” Haslam said.
Friday at the Knoxville TCAT was the last stop in Haslam’s weeklong tour of the state to promote the new program.
Haslam announced Tennessee Reconnect earlier this year, and last month, each of the 27 TCAT campuses had an open house for potential Reconnect students. But the governor’s tour isn’t the last of the state promoting the program that starts in the fall.
“I plan to be on the road nonstop going to every Rotary and church group that will have me,” said Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55 in Haslam’s office. He said he also plans to work with community partners and TCATs to spread the word.
Roughly 410 potential students have expressed interest in Reconnect at the Knoxville campus so far, said the campus’s director Dwight Murphy.
Reconnect is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers tuition and mandatory fees after other financial aid is applied. No cost to students, combined with TCAT’s 80-to-100 percent job placement rate, are the reasons potential students know they can come to TCAT to change their lives, Murphy said.
Described as another step in the Drive to 55 initiative, Haslam said Reconnect and Tennessee Promise, a last-dollar scholarship program for high school seniors, are a pair aimed at reaching the initiative of 55 percent of Tennesseans having a college degree or certificate by 2025.
He said if all high school graduates go to college, the state would only reach a percentage in the mid 40s by 2025. That 55 percent is intentional because in 2025, about 55 percent of jobs will require a degree or certificate, Haslam said.
He said roughly a million Tennessee residents have some college credits, so those are some of the people who could go to school with Reconnect and earn a degree to help them build a lifelong career.
At each of the stops, the governor heard from current TCAT students like Breeanna Brown on the Knoxville campus. Brown said she came to TCAT with some college credit, but was unemployed and a single mom of two, looking for a way to bounce back.
“Tennessee Reconnect is going to be amazing,” she said. “It gives the nontraditional student a second chance to start over again.”
Haslam said he’s confident the TCAT campuses will be able to handle the influx of Reconnect students and said the state budget was increased $5 million last year and $5 million this year for TCAT equipment.
And Murphy said the Knoxville campus will adjust with more night programs and satellite locations.
Murphy said Reconnect and Tennessee Promise are going to change education in the state forever, adding that this is thanks to the governor who decreased costs and made the programs high profile.
Any time the state creates a program like this, the biggest hope is it connects with people’s lives, Krause said. And he said that’s happening with Reconnect.
In the case of Tennessee Promise, Krause said data would have to be analyzed to see how many students would have gone to college without it and how many wouldn’t. But Reconnect is different.
“Every single adult would not go to college otherwise,” Krause said.
Learn more about Tennessee Reconnect at tnreconnect.gov. The deadline is May 15.