Students jump at chance for free college tuition

Dave Boucher, The Tennessean

When Gov. Bill Haslam announced the creation of the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, the state anticipated 20,000 students might apply.

A little more than a week before the Nov. 1 application deadline, the number of students embarking down the path toward free tuition at a Tennessee community college or college of applied technology is closer to 45,000.

Essentially two-thirds of all seniors in the state have applied. That doesn’t pose a monetary or logistical problem though, said Mike Krause, the man leading Haslam’s push for 55 percent of adult Tennesseans to have a college degree by 2025.

The influx is due in part to some districts asking all of their seniors to apply for the program. Even though the state and districts know many of the students aren’t actually interested in attending an applicable college, they want them to at least start the application process.

That’s about more than leaving options open, although Krause said that is certainly necessary for many students who haven’t picked their collegiate destination by Nov. 1. By filling out the online application, all students are able to get access to the mentors that accompany the program.

“Working with a mentor regardless of where you’re going to go to school is so positive and such a rewarding experience for our students,” said Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Cobb is referencing the district’s experience with tnAchieves, a precursor to Tennessee Promise. Mentors for Tennessee Promise will work in a similar fashion, meeting a few times with students to help them with admissions and financial aid paperwork, discuss their college options and other issues facing a potentially college-bound senior.

Many students in the Nashville area, and other areas of the state, are the first in their families to attempt to go to college. The chance for those students to work with an adult who’s gone through the process is vital, Cobb and Krause said. The state has about 6,100 mentors — more than its original goal of 6,000 — but they’re still trying to recruit. More mentors means more individualized help for each student.

As of early this week, a little more than 2,000 Metro students had completed the online application. That’s about half of all seniors in the district, but Cobb said they’re pushing for more.

Even if every senior in the state did apply, there are several more requirements along the way before a student is actually eligible for tuition. If a student misses any meeting with a mentor, they’re dropped from the program. Some might just decide to stop participating on their own; there’s no punishment for dropping out.

If a student doesn’t complete the complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA, they can’t participate. This leads to Cobb’s lone complaint with the program: Haslam decided undocumented students aren’t allowed to participate, citing the fact that they don’t have the social security number or other information necessary to complete the FAFSA document. Cobb said the rule affects several hundred students: there are other programs that offer help to these students, but it’s still “a very sad conversation” to tell a student he or she isn’t eligible.

If students do fill out all the paperwork and successfully meet with their mentors, they still need to perform eight hours of community service per term and maintain a 2.0 Grade Point Average — typically considered a C average — to keep receiving the scholarship.

Krause said the state expects to get a better picture of the number of participants in early February, the time of the first meeting with mentors. Initially the state anticipated 12,000 students at most actually receiving the scholarship, and they’re sticking with that number.

The money won’t be a problem even if that number is soft, said Dave Smith, a Haslam spokesman. The state has more than $300 million dedicated to paying for the tuition. Additionally, Tennessee Promise is a “last-dollar” scholarship: students only receive the money if they don’t have enough from other scholarships to cover their costs.

Last year at Metro, nearly half of all the tnAchieves students who successfully made it through the program didn’t need the money because they received enough from Pell grants, the HOPE scholarship and the Tennessee Student Assistance Awards. The state anticipates similar results with Tennessee Promise.

“We fully expect to be able to cover the cost of all the students applying,” Smith said.

“There is no red line,” he added, referencing any funding or participation ceiling for the program.

Space won’t be a problem either. Krause said he visited with the presidents from all 13 community colleges earlier this year. The recession saw an increase in community college enrollment; as the economy continues to recover and people are finding more jobs, enrollment is going down again. Krause said the schools created the infrastructure to serve a larger student population, and Tennessee Promise will help them fill their classrooms.

Most importantly, Krause said the statewide and national attention generated by the program is making Tennessee high school kids think about their future a little sooner.

“Never before have I seen this level of talk about college going in our schools at this point in the school year,” Krause said.

“Right now, that message appears to be resonating.”

Find more information about the program at

Reach Dave Boucher at 615-259-8892 and on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

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