Students see brighter futures through Tennessee Promise

Tahj Turnley, 17, plays videos games with a friend at his Williamson County home.

Adam Tamburin, The Tennessean 

For Gov. Bill HaslamTennessee Promise is a program that could be the cornerstone of his legacy.

For leaders across the country, it’s a road map whose successes or failures could guide years of higher education policy.

For thousands of students here, the scholarship program offers a ray of hope.

Supporters say a tuition-free ticket to community college will grab the attention of teenagers who never thought higher education was possible for them. For some of the 58,000 applicants, that has proven to be true.

College had been a pipe dream for Justin Short, who was raised by a single mother in a small town 90 minutes northeast of Knoxville. Money was just too tight.

So, he decided against it. Instead, he planned to enlist in the U.S. Air Force right after high school.

But when he read about Tennessee Promise in his local paper, those plans changed.

“It’s gonna give life to my dreams,” he said. “This is my ticket out.”

Now, he says, he’ll enlist in the Air Force after a stint at Northeast State Community College. The added education will make raises and promotions easier to get, he said.

“I’m glad they had my back on this one because we did need it,” he said. “To the governor, the state of Tennessee and whoever executed that, thank you.

“I’ll buy you lunch.”

Justin will be the first member of his family to become a college student.

So will Geraldine Hernandez, a Glencliff High School senior who lives in Antioch. She knew she wanted to go to college, but she believed paying for it would be a monumental task for her paycheck-to-paycheck family.

When Tennessee Promise was announced, enrolling was a no-brainer.

“Who invented this?” she asked with a laugh. “Let me give you a hug.”

Mike Krause, executive director of Tennessee Promise, said he’s heard many stories like those while traveling the state to attend hundreds of meetings for Tennessee Promise students.

“We truly have changed something about how students think about their future,” Krause said.

Community colleges are currently working to ensure those students will be successful when they reach campus this fall. Many schools hosted FAFSA workshops this month, offering students help with financial aid applications and a head start on enrolling in school.

Haslam also used his State of the State address to announce the Tennessee Promise Bridge Program, which will bring first-generation college students to campus this summer for orientation and remedial work.

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Tennessee Promise students like Tahj Turnley are fiercely optimistic that success is within reach.

His mother, Tiffani Adams, didn’t go to college and has spent her working life bouncing from job to job. But she believes her son’s path will be brighter thanks to Tennessee Promise. Turnley agrees.

“College for me is just like a new door opened,” he said.

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

About the project

This is the second installment in The Tennessean’s year-long series on Tennessee Promise, the state’s ambitious plan to provide community college tuition-free to eligible high school graduates. On the fourth Sunday of every month, The Tennessean will provide an in-depth look at the program’s progress and its impact.

About the students

The Tennessean identified the five students featured this month by working with tnAchieves, one of the agencies that pairs Tennessee Promise applicants with adult mentors. This series will follow these students’ successes and challenges as they make their way through the first year of Tennessee Promise.

By the numbers

More than 58,000 of Tennessee’s high school seniors applied for Tennessee Promise in 2014, exceeding officials’ expectations by tens of thousands. However, many of those students could decide to attend four-year universities or pursue other options.

The true number of Tennessee Promise participants won’t be finalized until fall. But that number will become clearer as some students fail to meet the program requirements throughout the year.

To remain eligible for the program, Tennessee Promise students have already had to attend a college planning meeting and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

More than 60 percent of the students in Nashville-area counties attended their planning meetings in January and February, according to data provided by Tennessee Promise Executive Director Mike Krause.

“While there are other program requirements still ahead, it’s exciting to see so many students progress through this first stage Tennessee Promise continuum,” Krause said in an email.

Krause expects to have statewide numbers on Tennessee Promise retention next week.

Students who made the first hurdle

Cheatham 383 252 66%
Davidson 3810 2612 69%
Dickson 500 342 68%
Robertson 617 419 68%
Rutherford 2393 1796 75%
Sumner 1813 1275 70%
Williamson 1591 1173 74%
Wilson 1332 844 63%

Source: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office

Key dates


» Feb. 3: Haslam unveils his plan for Tennessee Promise during his annual State of the State address.

» May 13: Haslam signs Tennessee Promise into law after it was passed by a wide margin in the General Assembly.

» Nov. 1: The deadline for the first wave of eligible students to apply for Tennessee Promise. Officials get more than 58,000 applications.


» January-February: Tennessee Promise students were required to attend planning meetings.

» Feb. 15: Deadline for Tennessee Promise students to file their FAFSAs.

» March and April: Tennessee Promise students are required to attend another round of planning meetings.

» Aug. 1: Deadline for Tennessee Promise students to perform community service required through the program.

» Aug. 15: A roster of eligible students will be sent to participating colleges.


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