Tennessee free tuition program attracts two-thirds of state's seniors

Mentors will guide students through application process

Tennessee’s free tuition program has generated a flood of applications, but officials say they have plenty of funding and capacity—and are even recruiting more students to participate.


Called Tennessee Promise, the program gives full scholarships for the state's technical and community colleges to any student who completes the proper paperwork, and meets with a mentor during the application process. The initiative is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s (R) push for 55% of the state’s adult residents to have a college degree by 2025.


Officials expected 20,000 applicants, but with one week to go before the Nov. 1 deadline, about 45,000 have applied—approximately two-thirds of the state’s graduating seniors. "Never before have I seen this level of talk about college going in our schools at this point in the school year," says Mike Krause, executive director of the program.


The numbers have been bolstered by some districts mandating that all students fill out an application, even if they do not intend to follow through. Ultimately, the state plans to award around 12,000 scholarships.


To be eligible for the program, students must:

  • Meet with a mentor throughout the application process,
  • Complete a FAFSA form,
  • Perform eight hours of community service per term, and
  • Maintain a C average.

The state recruited about 6,100 mentors to meet with students, who will help with paperwork, discuss program options, and guide them through the process. The mentorships have worked well in a previous—smaller—scholarship program called tnAchieves.


Want to learn more about tnAchieves? See EAB's profile here.

"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," says Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling for Metro Nashville Public Schools.


Cobb is enthusiastic about the new program, but regrets that its structure blocks out undocumented students, who lack a social security number to fill out the required FAFSA form. It is a "very sad conversation" to tell those students they cannot participate, he says.


Despite the high number of applicants, the governor’s office says funding will not be an issue. More than $300 million has been set aside to cover the cost of scholarships. Nor will capacity be a problem, he asserts. The community college system expanded to meet heightened demand during the recession—but now economic recovery has caused that demand to wane, leaving excess capacity in the system (Boucher, Tennessean, 10/22).

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