With the official signing of the Tennessee Reconnect Act last month, every Tennessean will now have the opportunity to enter or reenter public higher education tuition-free.
Tennessee Reconnect, which was proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam in his State of the State early this year, was passed by the General Assembly in May. The program is a critical part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the percentage of working age Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Tennessee Reconnect targets adults who have been to college but not completed a degree. With the passage of the Tennessee Reconnect Act, adults can now enroll in a Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) or Tennessee community college tuition-free.
Tennessee Reconnect also provides adults with free advising to make the process of going back more manageable and by connecting them to the programs and institutions that fit their needs.
The advising services are already available in a number of communities around Tennessee, including parts of Northeast Tennessee, at the Tennessee Reconnect Communities. Adults in our local areas have been benefitting from the advising services now for almost a year.
Lisa Sizemore, a mother from Morristown, is one of the local students already working with Tennessee Reconnect. Sizemore began raising her three children right out of high school, foregoing college to balance parenthood with various health issues, including epilepsy.
“I was living day to day on disability, while raising three boys on my own,” she explained.
When the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community was established, Sizemore found out that, with the support of state and federal financial aid, she could go back to college and pursue an education at no cost.
“So I took the test and now I am waiting for my orientation day,” she said.
For adult learners like Sizemore, going back to college and earning a degree needs to be quick and efficient. Tennessee Reconnect has worked with public and private higher education institutions across the state to prioritize resources that help adult learners earn a degree in a way that works for them.
The Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) has worked with institutions to prioritize a concept known as prior learning assessment (PLA). Taking into account some previously earned class credits, on the job training, military service, or other experiences, individuals can take an assessment to earn credit for what they already know.
Receiving credit for experience and prior knowledge can be appealing to someone like Alan Wood, who lives in Morristown and has worked in IT for 25 years before deciding to go back to college. Wood entered the coast guard right out of high school and attended college briefly after he finished his service. Before he could finish his bachelor’s degree, as he puts it, “Life got in the way.”
After working in the technology industry for more than two decades, he found himself struggling to move forward in his career.
“I began searching for other opportunities. There was a lot of interest in my skills and management experience from different employers,” Wood said. “But potential establishments told me that I had the knowledge, abilities and experience. I just did not have that piece of paper. I was very frustrated. I knew I had to come up with the time and money to go back to school.”
He contacted the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community, who helped him map out financial aid for going back to college, removing the money barrier for Wood.
“I was able to take more than one class at a time, so I could finish my degree sooner,” he said.
For adult learners interested in going back to college, the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community is one of eight communities around the state that offers free advising and resources to potential and current adult learners. Through Tennessee Reconnect, adults can already go back to a TCAT tuition-free and official funding for attending a community college through Tennessee Reconnect will begin in fall 2018.
If an adult is interested in enrolling before 2018, they are encouraged to contact their local Tennessee Reconnect Community to explore other financial aid options.
For adults who do go back, the goal of getting a degree is just as valuable as the pride that comes with completing a journey many started long ago. Adult learner Brittany Greene of Chuckey, who left high school after the birth of her daughter, is now back in college at age 26 working toward her associate degree to become a nurse.
She began working with an advisor through the Smoky Mountain Reconnect Community and is now on her way to reaching her ultimate career goal.
“I am now well on my way to having my dream job as a registered nurse and I have Tennessee Reconnect to thank for that. No matter your situation, no matter the obstacles, you can do this,” she said.