It’s never been easy to earn a college degree.
For older students who spent their prime years raising families and working as many as several jobs, getting that degree is even harder.
However, the state of Tennessee is trying to increase the number of college graduates in the state. Tennessee Reconnect is the state’s initiative to help adults enter higher education so they may gain new skills, advance in the workplace, and fulfill lifelong dreams of completing a degree or credential.
In 2017, former governor Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Reconnect Act, as a part of his “Drive for 55” program, which planned to increase the percentage of working age Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent by the year 2025.
Under the program adults can now enroll in a Tennessee College of Applied Technology, or Tennessee community college tuition-free.
Locally, Walters State Community College in Morristown is a participant in the Tennessee Reconnect program. Debra Williams, associate director of communications and marketing, says nontraditional students, especially those over 50, bring life experience to the table.
“Walters State has always served nontraditional students, and we have always attracted older students,” she said. “They often need the same assistance required by all students – counseling, tutoring and access to library resources.”
During the spring semester, 108 people over the age of 50 were taking classes at Walters State. These students are looking for new skills to assist in navigating this chapter of their lives while continuing their normal lives.
“Students over 50 also want flexibility in working around work schedules. Some may take a combination of online classes and on-campus classes,” Williams said. “Students over 50 bring with them experience that is often shared in the classroom.”
If students qualify, Tennessee Reconnect will pay tuition. To determine Tennessee Reconnect eligibility, students must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Students must be a Tennessee resident for one year, and enroll in at least six hours a semester leading to a certificate or associate degree. Students are ineligible if they have already earned a degree.
As one of eight communities across Tennessee, the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community offers free advising and resources to potential and current adult learners. Adults can already go back to a TCAT tuition-free and official funding for attending a community college through Tennessee Reconnect. Students can use the TCAT Reconnect Grant at any of the 27 TCATs in the state. Students can use the Reconnect Grant at any of the state’s 13 community colleges.
Williams said if more people knew about the program, the number of over-50 students would increase even further.
“Walters State’s student body has always included students over 50, although more may be attracted by Tennessee Reconnect,” she said. “Some need skills for a second career. Others have taken care of and provided for families, and now want to pursue their own dreams.”
As a part of the program, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission worked with institutions, both public and private, to prioritize a concept known as a prior learning assessment.
Using previously earned class credits, on-the job-training, military service or other experiences, prospective students can take an assessment to earn credit for what they already learned. Though nontraditional students over the age of 50 have an inside track to success, there are still many challenges they face on a daily basis.
“Each student faces unique challenges. Students at this age have probably already developed time management skills,” Williams said. “For many of them, children are grown so they don’t have all of the family responsibilities of a student who is 30 or 40. Many do have to find the balance between classwork, family, job and community responsibilities.”
“Many have not been in a classroom for many years, so they turn to professors, other students or student services to help develop skills needed to succeed in college.”
To learn more about Tennessee Reconnect, visit https://www.ws.edu/financial-aid/types/scholarships/tn-reconnect/.
For more information about advisement through the Smoky Mountain Tennessee Reconnect Community, visit www.smokymtnreconnect.org. TCAT Locations can be found at https://www.tbr.edu/institutions/colleges-applied-technology. To learn more about attending Walters State as an adult learner, visit https://www.ws.edu/yourws/adult-learner/.