The program got off to an imperfect start, but Tennessee Promise is on track to fulfill an important mission — beefing up the ranks of the well-educated workforce that will help communities across the state expand economic opportunities and strengthen the state economy.
In other words, Gov. Bill Haslam had a good idea — making community and technical college tuition free for high school graduates willing to attend a couple of mentoring meetings and complete eight hours of community service.
Tennessee Promise, aimed primarily at first-generation college students, pays the remaining costs not covered by other state- or federal-related scholarships.
Funded by the Tennessee Lottery, which has raised more than $3.8 billion since Jan. 20, 2004, to fund that and other designated education programs, the $11.9 million Tennessee Promise has a $361.1 million endowment.
It helped 16,291 students enroll in college last fall. Just over 80 percent of them re-enrolled in the spring, and officials expect more than 18,000 freshmen to use the scholarship this fall.
The program also has been given credit for an overall increase of about 4,000 more high school graduates who went to college in its inaugural year compared to the year before.
The surge came despite student struggles with the old version of FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that students must file to become eligible for college acceptance.
Readers who have dealt with FAFSA as a student, a mentor or a parent may be nodding their heads in recognition at this point and happy to learn that new federal rules will allow students to use older, more accessible tax data to submit their applications months ahead of time and avoid the FAFSA time crunch.
Some Tennessee Promise students lost their scholarships last year for failing complete their verification of the FAFSA form by the Aug. 1 deadline. A new rule requires students to file paperwork to start — not finish — the process by the verification deadline.
Another change: A state organization dubbed tnAchieves will begin pushing high school seniors and their counselors to file the FAFSA in October, before they need to apply for the scholarship.
And there will be more reminders for students about Tennessee Promise’s mentoring and community service requirements, for students new to the program and sophomores, as well.
One side benefit: Tennessee Promise has raised Tennessee’s national profile as a place of innovation in higher education. A similar federal program may soon follow.
It also has a catchy slogan. To welcome Tennessee Promise students to campus this fall, school staff members are hanging special banners and passing out free sunglasses to illustrate the theme, “My Future’s So Bright.”
If the program pans out as it should, the same could be said for Tennessee.