Excitement, angst remain for Tennessee Promise

Last in a year-long series.

Tahj Turnley, a student at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Hohenwald in Spring Hill, works on his car. Turnley hopes to become a mechanical engineer with help from the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. (Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins/ The Tennessean.com)

Tahj Turnley, a student at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Hohenwald in Spring Hill, works on his car. Turnley hopes to become a mechanical engineer with help from the Tennessee Promise scholarship program.
(Photo: Samuel M. Simpkins/ The Tennessean.com)

Confidence has always come easily for Tahj Turnley.

For almost a year, the 18-year-old has told The Tennessean about his ambitious plans to become a mechanical engineer and establish a lucrative career. But as he neared the end of his first term at Tennessee College of Applied Technology Hohenwald campus in Spring Hill, he acknowledged the challenges that have come with his first steps toward those goals.

“I wish I was learning more at a quicker pace,” Turnley said. “But I have to understand that all of this stuff takes a lot more time than I thought it would.”

Turnley is one of thousands of teenagers who started college tuition-free this year through the Tennessee Promise scholarship program. Many of them share his enthusiasm — and his angst.

College has tested him. But as he worked alongside his classmates this month, he recognized how far he’s come since he first walked onto the technical college’s Williamson County campus.

Earlier this month, after scooting on his back underneath his car, he strained to loosen the bolts so he could replace his busted front bumper. Completing that task would have been impossible a few months ago, he said.

During his first trimester, Turnley learned how to repair dents, tinker with engines and, yes, replace the front bumper on his car.

“It’s actually worth it to put your time into something” like college, he said. “It’s opened up my eyes to a lot of different opportunities that I could have for myself.”

That’s an epiphany many other Tennessee Promise students have shared throughout the pioneering program’s first full year.

The program has exceeded expectations at nearly every turn, bolstered by a level of student involvement that shocked administrators, professors and even Gov. Bill Haslam, who got national acclaim for proposing the program in 2014. Tens of thousands of students applied for the program and met many of its incremental requirements.

In the fall, when 16,291 students began using the program to study at community colleges, technical colleges and a handful of universities, it helped boost the size of Tennessee’s full-time freshman class by an unprecedented 10 percent over 2014.

But Haslam and his team can’t claim victory yet, and he knows it.

“We’re young in this. We’ve got exactly one semester under our belt,” Haslam said recently during an interview in his office. “You don’t want to be the person who spikes the ball before you’re really in the end zone.”

Indeed, some of Tennessee Promise’s toughest challenges are on the horizon.

The program is the centerpiece of the Drive to 55, Haslam’s wide-ranging effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate. Before it can be deemed a success, Tennessee Promise students such as Turnley must move beyond their first terms and make it through to graduation — a notoriously difficult feat at the community colleges most of the students attend.

So Haslam and his team have continued to roll out support to encourage student success. And they’ve tried to tackle some of the problems that came to light while the first Tennessee Promise students moved into higher education.

This year, the state allocated about $522,000 in federal grant funding to seven community colleges to pay for programs designed to make it easier for students to get a degree.

Volunteer State Community College is using its funding to install a software system that can track student performance and flag early signs of trouble, such as bad test grades or chronic absences. Dyersburg State Community College used part of its funding to roll out a three-hour freshman orientation course, added advising and a year-end celebration to promote retention.

Program draws national attention

Tennessee is the first state to offer high school students nearly universal access to tuition-free college. President Barack Obama visited Knoxville this year to salute Haslam’s vision for the program, and to propose a national version that shared many of the same characteristics

Leaders in other states have been eager to replicate the program themselves. Oregon became the first earlier this year when legislators there approved the Oregon Promise scholarship.

Angela Boatman, a Vanderbilt University professor and expert on issues surrounding college access, said she hears about Tennessee Promise wherever she goes. Colleagues across the country have quizzed her about the details and the 11 other Drive to 55 programs that focus on college access for veterans and adults.

“If you’re talking state-level reform, this state is trying a lot, and I think that’s why so many people are talking about it,” Boatman said. “I think that’s highly innovative. Other states, I don’t know that they do as comprehensive of a policy program.”

Haslam’s wide swath of initiatives “fit so nicely together,” Boatman said. “He’s to be applauded for getting these off the ground.”

Boatman said that early data coming out of Tennessee Promise’s first year show important indicators of short-term success. But long-term success will depend on Haslam’s continued support through funding and attention for higher education.

“A lot of attention will be on what happens in January” and beyond, she said. “How do these stay priorities given the many other issues that are bound to face the state on any given day or year?”

Reach Adam Tamburin at 615-726-5986 and on Twitter @tamburintweets.

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