Chattanooga Times Free Press, by Tim Omarzu
Stuck in a job you don’t like? Looking for a career change? Want to earn more money?
If you’re a Tennessee resident who’s at least 24 years old, a new state program called Tennessee Reconnect will send you — tuition-free — to one of Tennessee’s 27 Colleges of Applied Technology, such as the one at Chattanooga State Community College.
The new program is even open to those who already have a degree.
“You get a second chance,” said Jim Barrott, director of Chatt State’s TCAT. “And within a year, you can have a degree that will get you a job.”
Tennessee Reconnect is a spinoff of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Tennessee Promise, a new program that uses Tennessee Lottery money to guarantee that any high school senior can attend a community or technical college tuition-free.
“Its roots are in the Tennessee Promise legislation,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the state’s Drive to 55, an initiative that aims to boost the share of Tennesseans who have college degrees from about 32 percent now to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Like Tennessee Promise, Tennessee Reconnect will cover the “last dollar” — tuition and fees not paid by other state and federal programs. State officials predict Tennessee Reconnect will cost about $2 million annually.
Brook Jones, 24, who’s studying to be a machine tool technician now at Chatt State’s TCAT, may apply for Tennessee Reconnect money to spend another year learning welding.
“I was happy to hear about this,” said Jones, who prefers the hands-on TCAT classes to the engineering courses he took during a semester each at University of New Orleans and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“It was just too much math,” Jones said.
Attending class at a TCAT is much like having a job. Students clock in and out. Classes are available during the day, but Chatt State also offers night class from about 4 p.m. till 11 p.m. for students with day jobs. The next closest TCAT to Chattanooga is in Athens, Tenn.
Like many TCAT students, Jones gets financial aid through a Pell Grant and through a Wilder-Naifeh Technical Skills Grant. Tennessee Reconnect would cover tuition that those grants don’t.
Chatt State’s TCAT will hold an open house Saturday to showcase its two dozen programs, ranging from industrial electronics and surgical technology to cosmetology and massage therapy.
The program has a 92 percent job placement rate, said its director, Mike Ricketts.
“We have a variety of programs here that lead to jobs,” Ricketts said. “It’s not just a job, it’s a career, really.”