Brian Wilson, The Daily News Journal
MURFREESBORO – Caitlin James sees the Tennessee Promise as a pathway to becoming the first college graduate in her family.
Her road may take her to Motlow State Community College, and she expects to put more time into her classes there because she won’t have to worry about paying for them.
The statewide program approved in 2014 and funded through Tennessee Lottery reserves will provide two years of tuition on a last-dollar basis for any graduating high school senior who enrolls at a community college or technical school. The program will pay for tuition costs after application of other financial aid.
“It’s an opportunity I was willing to get,” James said. “It just makes me happy for my family.”
The last-dollar grants available to any graduating high school senior in Tennessee has drawn national attention while students are still figuring out how to transition to higher education while institutions work to prepare for a new influx of students.
Students and community college officials are both preparing to start Tennessee Promise in August, even as key elements of the program — including the number of students who enroll — must be competed or determined.
More than 16,000 students remained eligible in the Promise program in early June, said Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55, Gov. Bill Haslam’s initiative to have more Tennesseans complete a form of post-secondary education.
Krause expects final enrollment figures will become clear as classes start and students formally enroll at two-year and four-year colleges.
State officials said they have a better estimate of where students might go based on the schools they preferred when they filled out the Free Application for Student Aid or FAFSA.
Filing the form was a requirement for Promise students, so students could receive as much federal and state aid for which they were already eligible.
Motlow was the top choice for more than 1,800 students who said they wanted to take classes at one of the school’s four campuses in Moore County, Smyrna, Fayetteville and McMinnville.
More than 1,100 students who were going to the Promise process chose Middle Tennessee State University, even though they wouldn’t be eligible for the last-dollar funding if they went there.
Krause said the core goal of the program was to get students who didn’t think they could go to college the tools and resources to explore the possibility.
“Our goal was to change the conversation students were having,” Krause said. “I’m sure some students enrolled in four-year schools because that’s where they need to be.”
The program championed by Gov. Bill Haslam was meant to offer higher education to those who first thought college was not an option, said outgoing Motlow President MaryLou Apple.
“I felt like this was the first program that was an equal opportunity for all people to have access to college,” Apple, who will retire from the college on June 30, said. “For me, that definitely would be a life-changing experience.”
Riverdale High School graduate Rachel Lumpkin will attend Motlow in the fall with hopes the two-year school will ensure she ends up with a degree.
While going to college was never a question for her, paying for that higher education was a concern after her father’s cancer treatments used up her family’s savings, she said.
By the time she enrolls at MTSU, she hopes to have two years worth of general education courses out fo the way without any financial burden.
“Honestly, it’s a gift from the state of Tennessee,” Lumpkin said. “It’s really going to help out my family financially.”
For Lumpkin, getting and staying eligible have been fairly simple because of the effort Riverdale faculty and staff in reaching out to students and ensuring they did everything necessary to receive the grants.
She was connected with a mentor on campus, received help filling out the FAFSA and received frequent reminders about the next steps in the program until she graduated from the Murfreesboro high school in May.
In between graduation and enrollment, she’s working on what’s turned into her favorite part of the process — the eight hours of mandatory community service.
Lumpkin and some of her friends going to community college decided to join together and donate their time to HOPE Lodge in Nashville, a home for cancer patients as they go through treatments.
“It hits home for me,” Lumpkin said. “It’s really great to get out and love people who are in a situation I understand.”
Through the program, Lumpkin said she would return to HOPE Lodge.
She said Tennessee Promise students get a better sense of the communities they serve by volunteering.
“They’re pushing kids out into the community and asking them to serve,” Lumpkin said.
Freshmen in good hands
Apple at Motlow said making sure those students make it to classes in the fall is a top priority.
That means reminding students to enroll in classes, sign up for a new student orientation in July and refer them to organizations where they can complete their volunteer hours.
Once classes start in August, the community college’s new facility in Smyrna will give it the space to accommodate extra students, Apple said.
Even as students are enrolling into fall classes, the college is prepared to hire adjuncts and create new classes at whatever time they can to make sure everyone’s needs are met, she said.
“We’re trying to take a proactive approach and take everything into account,” Apple said. “We want push into this 100 percent ready and add on as we get a better sense of how this will work.”
Statewide and community college officials have said the second year of the Tennessee Promise process will be more effective, if only because they will know what to expect with incoming students.
While the recruitment for the second class of Promise students is already underway, Krause of Tennessee Promise is certain the first class will be in good hands.
“We’re very confident with the ability to have these students on campus,” Krause said.
The community-college environment will give her a smoother transition into higher education that she expected to have an institution like MTSU, where she first planned to go.
She still plans on attending the Murfreesboro university after her first two years, finish a degree and start a career in real estate.
James’ plan is different from when she first began looking at college, but she said she is optimistic the Tennessee Promise plan will emerge as a successful one.
“I’m feeling pretty confident,” James said. “Maybe I’m just nervous I don’t miss a step or lose a scholarship.”
Contact Brian Wilson at 615-278-5165 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @brianwilson17.