Tennessee's Promise: Tuition-Free Associate's Degree

May 20, 2014

Carrie Warick, Director of Partnerships and Policy

Tennessee is the first state in the nation to offer free associate’s degrees to qualifying students through its Tennessee Promise program. Last week Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed the law creating the last dollar scholarship for all Tennessee students. Starting with the class of 2015, all graduating high school seniors who meet program requirements will be eligible to receive up to five semesters of free education at Tennessee community colleges and Tennessee career and technical colleges (TCAT), or the equivalent aid at public-four and independent four-year colleges in Tennessee that offer associate’s degrees. 

“This opportunity for Tennessee students is unprecedented,” said Kim Cook, Executive Director of the National College Access Network, applauding Tennessee’s continued commitment to higher education for its residents. She continued, “Tennessee leaders are clearly telling students that they expect them to continue their education beyond high school, and will provide a path to do so.”

The Tennessee Promise is set up as a last dollar scholarship program, meaning that the state will pay for any portion of tuition that is not covered by other sources of aid excluding loans and work study. In addition to the tuition coverage, participating students will also receive a mentor to guide them through the college-going process. Students participating in the Tennessee Promise must meet the following requirements:
1) Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),
2) Work with an assigned mentor,
3) Attend a college orientation, 
4) Maintain satisfactory academic progress, and 
5) Perform one day of community service each semester.

Each county in Tennessee will have a designated college access program to provide the mentors following the guidelines outlined in the law. Those counties that do not have a qualifying program can designate TnAchieves as the program. Randy Boyd, education advisor to Gov. Haslam and Founder of TnAchieves was the NCAN 2013 Champion of College Access.

“The Tennessee College Access and Success Network greatly appreciates Governor Haslam’s commitment to higher education and all of the initiatives coming out of Drive to 55,” said Bob Obrohta, the organization’s executive director. He added, “Tennessee has numerous dedicated organizations striving to increase postsecondary degree attainment for all Tennesseans. These initiatives will help make their work a little easier in communicating the message that college is both affordable and attainable.”

The overall reception of the program was positive; however, Bryce McKibben of the Association of Community College Trustees did point out a few drawbacks. He stated that because the program was available to all students, and that most of the lowest-income students would have their tuition covered by federal programs like the Pell Grant, that the state was actually spending increased dollars on higher-income students who do not need the funds. In addition, the Tennessee Promise does not cover books, living expenses or transportation, but requires students to take a minimum of 12 credits. McKibben points out to Politico’s Morning Education that “part-time students who may be working to support themselves or their families while attending school . . . receive no Promise funds under program rules.” More than half of all Tennessee community college students are enrolled part-time. 

The legislation that created the Tennessee Promise also increased the amount of the HOPE Scholarship for first and second year bachelor’s degree students from $2000 to $3000 and to $5000 for junior year and beyond. Additionally, adult students are also able to participate in Reconnect Tennessee to fund continuing education at Tennessee Career and Technical institutions. The Tennessee Promise, HOPE Scholarship, and Tennessee Reconnect all demonstrate Tennessee’s commitment to higher education attainment from college access to degree completion.

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