Community colleges across Tennessee are starting the academic year with a higher-than-usual number of students. That’s because of a first-year program called Tennessee Promise, an initiative that provides new high school graduates two years of tuition-free attendance at community and technical colleges in the state.
Richard Briley is one of the new faces at Nashville State Community College. The future business major says that without Tennessee Promise he would have probably enrolled at a four-year school and taken on a lot of debt.
“I’d probably be going to TSU, Tennessee State University, but I would have to take out a loan," explained Briley.
On the first day of classes, Briley and other students got to meet one of the architects of Tennessee Promise, Governor Bill Haslam.
"Just out of curiosity, how many of you are the first person in your family to get to go to college," asked Haslam.
Half of the students in the room raised their hands.
"At this point in time, if I said what will keep you from walking across the stage and getting a two or four-year degree, what are you most worried will stop that from happening," Haslam asked.
The resounding answer was money.
Tennessee Promise is the first statewide program of its kind in the nation. About 16,000 students are attending the state’s 13 community colleges, about a ten percent jump over last fall, according to Tennessee Promise Executive Director Mike Krause.
Kimbreana Overall sits in the cafeteria at Vol State Community College in Gallatin. Overall’s laptop is open and she’s browsing for textbooks.
"On Amazon, they’re a lot cheaper if you rent them on there and you get them for the same amount of time. If you go in the bookstore, it’s like double that whether you’re renting them used or new, so it’s all about the price," said Overall.
Overall works now in retail but her goal is to become a neonatal nurse. That’s something she says is possible because of Tennessee Promise.
"Paying was going to be a big problem for me since I had unexpected family issues that came up, so it really gave me the choice to go to school again," she added.
Tennessee Promise is paid for from the state’s lottery reserves. The program is a last-dollar scholarship, meaning it covers all tuition and fees that federal grants and state scholarships do not, and therein lies some criticism.
Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen argues Tennessee Promise is structured to benefit middle-income students more than the neediest.
Cohen considers himself the architect of the Tennessee Lottery, which he worked to create as a state senator. The lottery was set up to fund a four-year Hope Scholarship for higher-achieving students, but to help pay for Tennessee Promise, the Hope Scholarships will be cut by a thousand dollars for freshmen and sophomores. And, future gains in lottery revenue will flow to Tennessee Promise.
Cohen calls the program a fraud.
"The governor’s raised no money for the program," remarked Cohen. "He’s just taken money from the achieving and needier students and frozen those scholarships which will ruin a good program for the best and brightest and put it into what I consider a rat hole.”
Congressman Cohen fears the lottery money is going to students with the least likelihood of graduating from college.
With Tennessee Promise in its infancy, it remains to be seen how successful the program will be, but there are other factors besides money and academics that determine whether a student succeeds or fails in higher education. Vincent Kirby, a student at Vol State, is the first in his family to go to college, and needless to say, his parents are proud.
"They just want to see me get all fours done, so it’s a little bit of motivation to study harder," commented Kirby.
Kirby isn’t alone. Many of the students attending classes under Tennessee Promise are first-generation college students. Under the program, students are offered different kinds of support. An example is the TRIO program at Vol State which serves first-generation and non-traditional students. Program Coordinator Jean Colello says students have access to tutors, technology, academic advising, transfer assistance, and a shoulder to lean on.
"Being first-generation, they just don’t have the experience and their parents just don’t have the experience of knowing how college works," explained Colello. "Today, a student came in and he missed his Tuesday class because on the schedule it said TR and he thought it meant only Thursday, and that meant Tuesday\Thursday, so not having that exposure is hard for them.”
Lara Bradford receives services from TRIO. She too is a first-generation college student.
"We had our orientation here and they went over lots of important things we need to know like what kind of services they offer and what kinds of programs we can do," said Bradford. "You call tell they want you to succeed.”
Because many Tennessee Promise students are first-generation, volunteer mentors are critical to the success of the program. Mentors help high school seniors navigate the college admissions process and ensure they complete the requirements for Tennessee Promise scholarships. Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, is one of about 9,000 Tennesseans who volunteered to mentor Tennessee Promise students.
"I was one of thousands of Tennesseans who were madly texting to remind someone to fill out a financial aid form," laughed Phillips. "I was sort of the nag-in-chief for a variety of kids in high school, but over the course of the year, what started out as a lot of texts about deadlines transformed into questions, questions about my experience getting ready to go to college, how I felt about it at the time, whether I was nervous about it, questions about experiences they were getting ready to have that no one in their family or immediate circle had perhaps had.”
Phillips sees the students as the future of Tennessee’s economy.
"Imagining classrooms all across the state today where Tennessee Promise students are sitting and continuing their education and equip themselves with the skills that our businesses need is pretty exciting moment for us," Phillips remarked.
Having students show up for class is only the first step, says Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
"The goal was never about access. We talk so much about access to higher education because so many don’t have it and so many people think that’s not me, that’s not who my family is, we don’t go to school beyond high school," explained Haslam. "Access was step one. The goal has always been about success and the goal was about having more students walk across the stage in Tennessee and get a certificate or degree beyond high school.”
Haslam says Tennessee Promise is crucial to his Drive to 55 initiative, a push for 55 percent of Tennesseans to earn a college degree or certificate by 2025.
The state is already beginning to market and prepare this year’s high school seniors for Tennessee Promise. The deadline for the Class of 2016 to apply for the second round of scholarships is November 2nd.