Shelley Kimel, Knoxville News Sentinel
Shelina Green, married with one child, is enrolled in the medical office information program at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology Knoxville campus, where she attends classes 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. on weekdays. She picked the program, in part, because it was affordable and would allow her to finish within five months.
After class, she works 3-8 p.m. at Clayton Homes, which allowed her to switch to a part-time schedule to continue her education and is supportive of her new career track, she said.
Amanda Coada is learning to become a dental assistant at TCAT, a mission that became more important after she was hit with unexpected medical bills while working at a fast-food restaurant. Coada’s halfway through the 12-month program and is also working a retail job.
They are the types of working adults who could be helped by Tennessee Reconnect, a program launched in January by Gov. Bill Haslam, that would provide the last-dollar award for tuition at the state’s 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology. Tuition is about $3,500 at the Knoxville location for most programs.
Applications are being accepted until May 1 for fall 2015 enrollment. Potential students can apply through a new state portal, www.tnreconnect.gov, which provides education information and resources specific to adult learners.
“Adult students really are trying to answer one big question: How does higher education work with my life? And it’s a different question than an 18 year old’s asking. They’ve got a family, they’ve got work and they’re trying to juggle,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Drive to 55 and Tennessee Promise.
One way to do that is by giving students an accelerated time frame and direct employment options on graduation. Most of the 19 full-time courses offered by TCAT Knoxville are 12 to 20 months long. Thanks to the school’s business partnerships, students also take advantage of real-world training.
“Every program adviser has an advisory board made up of individuals and employers in the community. … They review curricula, the facilities and they provide job opportunities and co-op opportunities for graduates,” said Kasey Vatter, assistant director of TCAT Knoxville.
Participating employers include Denso, Alcoa and Eagle Bend Manufacturing in trades fields, and students have also worked with, and been hired by, Ameriprise, Cherokee Health and Sitel.
More than 80 percent of TCAT students complete their program and 86 percent were placed in their field according to data from the school.
More than 900 students attended the school last fall and the average student is in their early to mid-30s — although students in their 50s and even 60s are not uncommon — and many are working adults who would fit the Tennessee Reconnect profile, said Yolanda Williams, a student counselor.
Students often have prior coursework from a community college or plan to attend one after leaving TCAT. Employers that support the school also often help hires continue their education, typically by sending them to community colleges where their diploma counts toward credit hours for an associate degree.
In addition to the Tennessee Reconnect program, the governor announced more than $8 million in initiatives for community colleges and adult students in his 2015 budget proposal.
Among those is Reconnect for Community Colleges, a $1.5 million pilot program, based on the Tennessee Promise community college scholarship program for high school graduates, to help adults with some postsecondary credit to attend community college starting in 2016 and $2.5 million for statewide outreach efforts to adults. Communities and institutions can compete for additional funds to implement projects targeted at adult learners.
Meanwhile, TCAT is preparing for the anticipated interest of several hundred more adults using Tennessee Reconnect for fall semester, in addition to the 600 or so first-time Tennessee Promise graduates who listed TCAT as one of their top choices, Williams said.
To accommodate these new learners, the school is currently seeking accreditation for several satellite campuses to handle new interest in the most popular programs and has also started offering night schedules to increase the number of students it can serve. Talks are underway to form partnerships with other organizations, including area high schools and Pellissippi State, to further broaden available offerings.