Tennessee Promise program opens the door for high school graduates to attend a state community college or college of applied technology for free.
When Gov. Bill Haslam signed the groundbreaking Tennessee Promise bill into law, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to offer such a program.
The bill guarantees that beginning with the graduating class of 2015, the state will pay the tuition and fees – after financial aid packages are applied – for any Tennessee high school graduate to attend a state community or technical college full time.
“Being a single parent of three, I’m at an economical disadvantage and can’t offer a lot of financial support when it comes to furthering their education,” Nashville resident Taleshia Kimble says. “Now they won’t have to get bogged down in debt from student loans if they choose a community college.”
The Tennessee Promise is part of Gov. Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative to boost the percentage of Tennessee residents with a college degree or certifications to 55 percent by the year 2025.
“We know that the more educated the population is, the more attractive we become to employers and relocating businesses – and the better the quality of life is for our citizens, says Mike Krause, executive director of the Drive to 55/Tennessee Promise initiative.
Widening the Pipeline
Krause says that one of the misconceptions is that Tennessee Promise is merely a higher education initiative, when in fact, the program is a workforce development initiative.
“The governor is about creating an environment where relocating employers know they are coming to a state with an educated workforce and with a pool of students who have graduated through the higher education pipeline who are ready to go to work,” he says.
Krause says while the Tennessee Promise program is aimed at high school graduates, other programs, such as Tennessee Reconnect, make it easier for working adults to complete a certificate or degree. The program offers working adults tuition scholarships to attend any of the state’s colleges of applied technology.
“There is something special about those working adults returning to higher education via a technical college. Our Tennessee College of Applied Technology campuses have incredibly high success rates and high job placement rates in the 80 percent range,” Krause says. “I think that is the ideal venue for working adults who may have some college, but no degree to return and complete a credential that they know is going to make a difference in their employment.”
STEM-ulating the Workforce
The program also positions Tennessee to attract more high-tech industries. Krause says many of the STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) credentials needed to fill those high-tech jobs can be achieved at the associate degree or certificate level.
“Motlow State Community College, for example, offers an associate degree in mechatronics. That degree poises those graduates to immediately go to work in an advanced manufacturing environment, making a very competitive wage,” Krause says.
Dr. Warren Nichols, vice chancellor for Tennessee’s Community Colleges says community and technical colleges are continually reviewing their course offerings to make sure they provide students with those skills businesses have said they need and want in employees.
“I suspect a majority of students coming to a community college from high school under the Tennessee Promise program will find themselves in one of our two-year workforce degree programs, meaning they will go straight to work after graduation.” Nichols says. “That’s why we’ve developed certificate and degree programs that will directly link students to statewide businesses and industries.”
Grade-A Education Initiatives
Tennessee Promise is just the latest in a series of programs and initiatives aimed at raising the bar for the state’s educational system. Since the adoption of the Tennessee Diploma Project, which overhauled the state’s high school curriculum, ensuring all students stay on a college preparatory tract, the high school graduation rate in Tennessee has steadily increased each year by an average of more than 1 percent.
“I attribute that success rate most of all to our wonderful teachers and principals who are out there on the front lines,” Krause says. “Tennessee has had an incredible education reform narrative running, from the Tennessee Diploma Project to Race to the Top. The work the teachers and principals have done to implement those reforms has been very powerful, and you see it born out in increased graduation rates.”
School administrators share credit with state programs that give students more post-graduation options and make opportunities available that might not otherwise be there.
“We have kids who are very deserving to go to college and are very hard-working at school and home, but because of their financial situation can’t afford to go to college. This program is very promising, especially as college tuition continues to increase,” says Traci Sloss, assistant principal at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville.
Sloss says she also believes the success of programs such as Tennessee Promise will have a ripple effect on entire communities like the north Nashville neighborhood in which Pearl-Cohn is located.
“Once we have students taking initiative and modeling achievement, other students will follow suit,” she says. “Parents will take a greater interest in their children’s academic success, and it will help the community economically because once kids are educated and get jobs, they come back to the community to work.”
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