Tennessee rolls out scholarships to get adults back in school

reconnect_tcat2_15577696_ver1.0_640_480Memphis Commercial Appeal, Jane Roberts

Roland Rayner, longtime director of the two Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology here, is in for one of those leap-of-faith moments this weekend when he opens Saturday for an event that could significantly expand enrollment.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the two schools, plus 25 others across the state, will be open for tours, career advising and a sales pitch Gov. Bill Haslam’s office hopes will bring thousands of adults back to school.

Through Tennessee Reconnect, the state will pick up all tuition or fees not covered by the PELL grant or the Wilder Naifeh Technical Skills grant for adults who want to earn or finish a degree. It is the adult corollary to Tennessee Promise, the state lottery-funded scholarship that gives any high school senior in the state two free years at a state community college. Both scholarships are part of Drive to 55, Haslam’s campaign to increase the percentage of adults with some kind of postsecondary degree to 55 percent. Currently, the number is 34 percent.

“We have absolutely no idea what to expect,” Rayner said Thursday morning in a brisk tour of the Downtown campus on Alabama. What he does know is that Tennessee Promise alone produced 600 possible candidates this year for the two campuses that now serve a total of 950 to 1,000 students a year.

“We can handle more,” Rayner says. We’re adding weekend classes and hiring more teachers.”

Adults are harder to engage “because of life, let’s just put it that way,” Rayner said. “People have children or they are working. What I’m saying is this: If you can deal with the issues we can’t fix, we can take care of the financial barriers for you.”

Several students in the school’s 12-month Assistant Animal Lab Technology course already have jobs lined up when they graduate, including Tamara Johnson, 46, who returned to school last year after being out for 25 years.

“I lost my job when Pinnacle Airlines downsized,” she said. “I was lead ramp agent.”

She’ll make the same money, if not more, processing specimens for veterinarians at IDEXX Laboratories here, she says, and equally as important to her is that she was able to quickly retrain for a career change in midlife.

In the two-year Machine Tooling Technology program, student Keith Johnson, 53, already has a job at Smith & Nephew, smoothing out nicks and dings on spinal implants produced here. His goal is to get enough hours in to be eligible to apply for machinists’ openings, which pay $17-$20 an hour.

“I’m very pleased with what I’ve accomplished,” he said.

Tennessee has between 900,000 and 1 million adults who have earned some college credit but do not have a degree. The state cannot achieve the goal without helping them finish their degrees, said Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55.

“The state’s TCAT campuses suffer from lack of awareness,” Krause said. “People are not sure what they do.”

By giving people a reason to visit them, Krause hopes to fast-track enrollment, which can be completed through Tnreconnect.gov.

“When you go to a TCAT, you have to make two decisions: Where do I want to go and what do I want to major in. After that, we’ve refined the path and people have fewer decisions. They don’t have to register every quarter. You know what you are going to study over 18 months (program lengths vary). You can go in the evening or day, whichever works best,” Krause said.

The state’s 28 technical schools enroll about 17,000 “from Mountain City to Memphis,” he said. “If we can increase that 10 to 15 percent in six months, that is exciting … What we are really trying to see is if we can be in a different place in a few months in workforce development. As early as August, we could find ourselves building a different pipeline.”

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