Four days a week, Clint Kauffman goes to the technical college on White Bridge Road, puts on his safety glasses and gets to work.
He spends hours in the machine shop, learning to make tools that are used to mass produce everything from cutlery to washing machines. Kauffman, 47, hopes the hands-on experience at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Nashville will qualify him for high-paying manufacturing jobs after he graduates from the machine tool program next year.
The retired veteran used his benefits to pursue his studies. Until this year, the opportunity to do the same was out of reach for thousands of adults who couldn’t afford the tuition and fees, including Kauffman’s adult stepson Gunner.
But the roll-out of the Tennessee Reconnect grant, a new initiative that offers eligible adults the chance to study at a TCAT tuition-free, could bring thousands of new students into technical college this fall. At an open house on March 28, Kauffman brought his stepson to TCAT Nashville to apply for the information technology program.
“For him, it’s a stronger route toward independence,” Kauffman said of his stepson, who currently works as a Dollar General clerk. “It’ll be the civilian version of the GI Bill.”
Early interest in the Reconect grant has surged to a level that has surprised even its most ardent supporters. During open houses across the state on March 28, 651 adults applied for the grant in four hours.
By the end of last week, 2,500 people had applied for the grant.
The Reconnect grant is a key prong of the Drive to 55, Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to ensure 55 percent of Tennesseans have a college education by 2025. It was passed into law last year, alongside the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which covers community college tuition for eligible high school graduates starting this fall.
The grant program is estimated to cost the state $1.5 million in its first year, with existing grants and scholarships covering the lion’s share of the expenses.
Haslam is pushing the Reconnect grant’s potential to arm Tennessee’s workforce with new skills. The state’s 27 TCAT locations offer training in nursing, cosmetology, early childcare and manufacturing, among other programs.
TCAT students have an 85 percent job placement rate, according to state data.
Officials at the schools attribute that success to their deep ties with local industry. TCAT administrators tailor their programs to meet the hiring needs of businesses around the state.
To capitalize on the placement rate, the governor’s office has given Reconnect information to unemployment counselors and staffers in the Department of Human Services.
“Lives are going to change because of what happens” with the Reconnect grant, said Mike Krause, the executive director of Drive to 55. “Employers will now have a different pool of employees to potentially hire.”
TCAT Nashville Director Mark A. Lenz is already planning for an influx of new students. He expects to expand night class offerings to accomodate more students who are juggling school, work and family life. If there’s enough demand, he might add more weekend classes to the schedule.
“I can run around the clock if I have to,” he said.
Haslam will travel the state this week to tout the program at TCAT locations and local businesses. The statewide tour starts Monday at TCAT Nashville, outside the machine shop that doubles as Clint Kauffman’s second home.
Kauffman, who works as a security guard when he’s not in school, said enrolling at technical college has offered a solid foundation for his next act. He hopes that the Reconnect grant will help his stepson get the same thing — without the added burden of tuition.
“He’ll be able to concentrate on school,” Kauffman said. “Get him in school, get him a degree and let him get on with his own life.”
Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.
To be eligible for the Tennessee Reconnect grant, adults have to be a Tennessee resident and U.S. citizen who is at least 24 years old.
Visit tnreconnect.gov or call 615-366-4405 for more information.