Heather Mullinix, Crossville Chronicle
While much of the focus of the Drive to 55 initiative in the state has been on high school graduates, a new program hopes to make it easier for older students to get training to help launch new careers through the Tennessee Reconnect program.
“Beginning Fall 2015, they’ll be able to get the Reconnect, which is wonderful,” said Kara Vanhoy, student services coordinator with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology at Crossville. “The Reconnect is going to help a lot of students.”
The Drive to 55 initiative is focusing on raising the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary certifications or degrees from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Part of that effort is the launch of the Tennessee Promise program, which will provide free tuition to community colleges and TCAT schools for high school graduates beginning with the class of 2015. Tennessee Reconnect will change the Wilder-Neifeh Skills Grant to a last-dollar scholarship to benefit older students. In Cumberland County, more than 21,000 people do not have post-secondary degrees.
The program will offer “last dollar” scholarships for any Tennessee resident, regardless of educational background, to attend any of the state’s 27 TCAT campuses. “Last dollar” means it will cover any tuition costs not covered by other financial aid. Students must be classified as independent students for financial aid purposes, which generally means age 24 or older, married or have kids. The program would cover tuition but not the cost of books.
Those in-demand technical fields include automotive, building construction, administrative office, drafting, collision repair, computer information, early childhood education, electricity, electronics, HVAC, industrial maintenance, machine tool, practical nursing, surgical technology and welding.
Tennessee Reconnect will be available to students regardless of their educational background. This is important, Vanhoy explained, because those who have completed degrees previously are not eligible for the federal Pell Grant.
It will also be available to students who may have previously received the HOPE Lottery Scholarship or the Wilder-Neifeh Technical Skills Grant, both funded by the Tennessee lottery. Before, if a student had received any lottery-funded assistance previously, he or she was not eligible for lottery-funded assistance for a new course of study.
“Sometimes, the field you’ve chosen to go into, the job market isn’t good,” said Nunley.
“This way, nobody will have to come up with tuition,” said Vanhoy. “The only thing they’re going to have to pay for is books.”
The website driveto55.org estimates that 47 students at TCAT at Crossville were ineligible for the Wilder-Neifeh Technical Skills Grant in 2012-’13 year because they had received the HOPE scholarship previously. State-wide, more than 1,000 students a year would benefit from the change.
Vanhoy said there is work ongoing to clarify exact rules for how the program will work, taking into consideration how TCAT centers classify students as full time and what constitutes “continuous enrollment.”