Megan Boehnke, Knoxville News Sentinel
After a 10-minute roundtable with four Gibbs High School seniors, Gov. Bill Haslam asked the students, “Do you have any questions for me?”
There was only one.
“Well, I’ve had a lot of people tell me to take a selfie,” said Sherrice Dale,smiling.
“I can do that,” Haslam replied.
It was the first of dozens of students’ selfie requests to come.
An aide chimed in, “Make sure you tweet those photos to @TNPromise.”
The governor and his team are hoping those selfies and tweets, along with good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, will help spread the word among high school students that they can attend the state’s community colleges and technical schools for free.
Haslam introduced the scholarship program, called Tennessee Promise, in January and worked throughout the legislative session to have it approved in mid-April. Now, he’s criss-crossing the state to make sure students meet the Nov. 1 application deadline for the program’s inaugural class.
“It’s wonderful that the legislature passed it. It is great that we found a way to pay for it,” Haslam told reporters. “But the two-year promise of free community college or technology school isn’t worth anything unless students actually apply.”
During his stop at the east Knox County high school, Haslam met with four seniors; most said they planned to go to community college on the Tennessee Promise scholarship.
Afterward, Haslam spoke in the gymnasium, where the school’s juniors and seniors cheered when he walked into the room and then gave a standing ovation when he was introduced.
“We are the only state where we make this promise, that you have two years free of community college,” Haslam told the students.
“If you have friends or cousins that live in other states, this doesn’t work for them,” he went on. “This only happens in Tennessee. My hope is that you’ll take advantage of it.”
Chelsea Pickering,a senior who was part of the roundtable, said she plans to take advantage of the free tuition and attend Pellissippi State or Walters State Community College. She wants to earn her real estate license over the summer and then pursue business in college.
“I think it’s an amazing opportunity and it just opens more doors and just lets more people in,” she said after the assembly.
“Hopefully by the time those two years are up, I’ll know for sure whether I want to continue my business degree or if I want to stay with real estate or if I want to do both,” she said.
Haslam said the Promise program will attract more students like Pickering. The goal, he said, is to increase enrollment in the state’s colleges by about 15 percent.
The state began accepting applications four days ago and have been averaging about 200 applications a day statewide, he said.
The barriers, however, are not just financial and that’s why the mentors are an important part of the program, Haslam said.
“If nobody in your family has ever taken the ACT, you might not know that hey, it’s that Saturday and you have to take it that Saturday. It’s one of the reasons we have the mentor program in place, to help hold the hand through the ACT process, help fill out that financial aid form, to do the things that maybe, if no one in your family has ever been to college, then there’s no one in your family that knows how to help you.”
To finance the program, the state will move $302 million from the lottery scholarship reserve fund to a new trust to endow free tuition at two-year schools and then shift all future surpluses into the same trust.