Gov. Bill Haslam returned Wednesday to one of the campuses that reaped the greatest benefits of his Tennessee Promise plan, signing into law a new bill that will allow any adult resident to return to college or attend for the first time for free.
Since Haslam signed Tennessee Promise into law in 2014, attendance at Motlow State Community College has increased 40 percent per year, making it the fastest-growing college in the state for two years running.
Now, Haslam said he expects the Tennessee Reconnect Act to make community college available for thousands of additional Tennessee adults for whom higher education would not previously have been an option.
“We want to make a really loud and clear statement to everyone in Tennessee: ‘No matter who you are, no matter what your education path has been in the past, no matter what your income level is, you can go to college for free in Tennessee,’” Haslam told a group of elected officials, students and faculty gathered at the school.
“We can dramatically change the trajectory of a lot of people’s lives, and we can compete with anybody when it comes to recruiting businesses,” he said.
Tennessee Reconnect provides for a “last-dollar scholarship” for any adult Tennessee resident without a college degree or certificate regardless of income or past academic performance.
The scholarship will kick in after applicants have completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and received any other financial aid that would be available to them.
Efforts will focus on the more than 900,000 Tennesseans with some college credit but no degree, but adults who have never stepped foot on a college campus will be eligible as well.
The state’s network of 13 community colleges has already started working to beef up support for a surge of older students. Administrators are considering adding nighttime course offerings, among other accommodations for an adult’s busy schedule.
State funding already covers tuition for adults who want to go to technical college, and there is a small program that pays community college tuition for adults who meet a rigorous slate of requirements.
But officials expect the new community college scholarship, which will allow adults to attend college part-time, to be a more popular option.
Haslam was introduced Wednesday by Khari Gore, a 41-year-old recent graduate at Motlow State who went back to college 20 years after starting.
“It is because of this school and its wonderfully dedicated staff that I am able to stand here today,” Gore said. “My journey to become a college graduate was 20 years in the making. I realized after the many years and setbacks in the workforce, my experience alone would not get me the position I wanted or keep my career moving forward.
“When I enrolled in Motlow State, it was clear that they had the staff and resources to juggle school around work and my family, and not my family and work and around school.”
After Haslam signed the bill, he was joined at the table by Carie Huffman, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom who was the first person to sign up for the program.
Huffman left Trevecca Nazarene University when she was 18, and is returning to become an elementary school teacher after 20 years.
“This is an incredible opportunity, after 20 years I can go back and get my degree and become a teacher,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into with two kids, but I can go to school when they are in class during the day and at night when their dad gets home.”
Haslam held three signing ceremonies Wednesday with the first at Walters State Community College in Morristown, followed by Motlow State in Smyrna and then Benjamin L. Hooks Central Public Library in Memphis.
Funding for the new scholarship would come from the state’s lottery proceeds.
Officials expect the Reconnect scholarship would cost the state $10 million annually.
This continues the governor’s Drive to 55 initiative, launched in 2013 with the goal of getting 55 percent of working-age Tennesseans to complete a college education by 2025.
Reporter Adam Tamburin contributed to this report.
Reporter Jordan Buie can be reached at 726-5970 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.